Johnny Can't Remember
May 30, 2008 10:34 AM   Subscribe

How can I remember more of what I read?

I'm a non-fiction person. Especially books having to do with metaphysics, philosophy, art, etc. I read a great deal, but I can't seem to remember key elements or points later on.

I recall disliking school, elementary and high school, because nothing much interested me (no one was teaching, say, astrology back then). I didn't want college. So I didn't go and did quite well in life despite not having a degree.

I'm thinking maybe not having gone through higher education might have limited me in the remembering department. Or is that a myth?

Does anyone have a favorite technique, or skill, or exercise -- or god forbid, a book recommendation-- that would assist me in being able to remember and recall more what I read?
posted by zenpop to Education (21 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
A high school teacher of mine made us write a paragraph at the end of each chapter summarizing what we'd read. This helped a lot with retention. Also, highlighting key points and writing notes in the margins were crucial to my higher education.
posted by desjardins at 10:42 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a philosophy grad student. When I read philosophical works, I, even still, have to slow myself down and really concentrate on each word. When I read for "fun," I tend to skim lines or at least skip words. In good philosophical writing (at least imo), every word is important.

Also, I would second desjardins' suggestion. I do this when I'm reading to remember details. If nothing else, it's a quick reference guide for when I look back later.
posted by chndrcks at 10:53 AM on May 30, 2008

I heard once that you remember about 10% of what you see, 20% of what you hear, and 90% of what you teach. Not sure how accurate those numbers are, but I can't remember anything unless I regurgitate it to someone else later. If you have a good buddy who shares your interests, try to make notes in your head as you read and then play it back later as interesting conversation pieces. 'Course, the hard part's learning how to not sound didactic and boring.
posted by reebear at 11:37 AM on May 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

1. Read slowly. When I read technical material for retention, I pause at every sentence, and really identify the subject of that sentence.
2. When you come to an important point, mentally rephrase the point as a question and answer in your head.
3. If I absolutely have to know commit something to memory I take good notes and then make a little question/answer quiz for myself.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 11:49 AM on May 30, 2008

A high school teacher of mine made us write a paragraph at the end of each chapter summarizing what we'd read. This helped a lot with retention.

I do this in a blog. I tag each post with the name of the book so I can easily find summaries later when I need to refresh about something.
posted by Nelsormensch at 12:28 PM on May 30, 2008

I can't prove the following theories, but (anecdotally) the seems to work for me:

- the more senses with which I receive information, the more likely I'll remember it.

So if I read something silently (sight); and then read it again, aloud (hearing); and then write it (or a summery of it) down (kinesthetic), some part of my brain goes, "Wow! Every sense seems to think this is important! I'd better remember it."

- If I hear the same idea from several different people, I'm more likely to remember it.

For instance, if I read three books on the same subject, by three different authors, I'm likely to remember it. I'm guessing that's because I'm a "social animal." My brain is saying, "Wow! Three different people are telling me the same thing. It must be important."

- If I hear/read/watch the same thing a few times -- WITH BREAKS IN BETWEEN -- I'm more likely to remember it.

If I re-read a passage three times in rapid succession, I have about as much chance of remembering it as if I read it once. But if I take a break in-between each reading (especially if that break involves sleep), I'm more likely to remember it.

I think my brain is saying, "Wow! You've heard the same thing on three separate days. It must be important." Also, sleep aids memory.

- You can combine these methods. Experience the same info on three different days, in three different ways. (Three seems to be the magic number for me. For you it might be two; it might be five.)

I'll go out on a limb and say that varying almost anything -- while re-reading or re-experiencing the same info -- will help you remember it. Read it aloud three times in three different voices (e.g. loud, quiet and impersonating Richard Nixon); Read it in three different locations (a restaurant, in bed, in the bathroom); etc. Make sure you take breaks between each reading.
posted by grumblebee at 12:34 PM on May 30, 2008

I think reebear has a great point.
Even if there's no one around to regurgitate to, I find just pausing to imagine how I would express the idea to someone else, in my own words, to be very helpful. Then again, I still seem to start a great deal of my sentences with "I was just reading an article about..."
posted by vodkaboots at 12:38 PM on May 30, 2008

Response by poster: I love this site! Thanks! Awesome suggestions everyone, especially grumblebee -- this reminds me of how the mystic teacher Gurdjieff would instruct students, having them make each of their different 'centers' (intellectual, emotional, moving) involved with whatever task they were committed to.
posted by zenpop at 12:41 PM on May 30, 2008

grumblebee has a good point about different styles of learning. Me, I'm very visual, so if I come across a technical concept that I can't get my mind around, I either sketch it or find a picture online.
posted by desjardins at 12:42 PM on May 30, 2008

In reebears, 10, 20 90 break down, I had never heard it with teaching before, but with a pretty high (70%ish) for writing it down. So make sure to follow Desjardin's advice if you want to remember things.

Also, I find that reading different texts covering the same material helps me to retain information.

Make sure to figure out what works best for you though, for me, rewriting helps, but if it's learning something I can do, actually doing it helps the most.
posted by drezdn at 12:47 PM on May 30, 2008

If you use the knowledge, it sticks. For something like art, you might take the principles of what you've been reading and trying to apply them into coming up with a new approach for making your own creations. In other topics, writing notes might serve a similar purpose - even if you never again read the notes.

I'm thinking maybe not having gone through higher education might have limited me in the remembering department. Or is that a myth?

Yes and no. In higher education, you don't just read, you also have to write essays about what you've read (if you want a B grade) or essays that take what you've read and then take the thinking further (if you want a higher grade). So it's the same as above - applying the knowledge is what makes you remember it, and higher education tries to get you to (among other things) apply the knowledge. Because you know you have to apply it, you're thinking about how to apply it when you're reading it, which also helps make it stick.

Picking up a habit of thinking about how to apply knowledge (or even just how it applies to things that matter to you) rather than simply trying to remember it, is probably the bulk of what you're thinking about when suggesting that higher education helps.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:49 PM on May 30, 2008

Read really slowly. If you don't completely understand and can apply the meaning of a sentence or a paragraph, read it again until you do. Understanding is more 'sticky' than simply 'remembering'. Jot down notes of your thoughts that were prompted by what you read. (If you make notes that simply summarize what you read, it'll be less compelling than jotting down your own thoughts, which will trigger you to remember your thought process and what it was that started that process - ie, what you read.)
posted by Kololo at 12:50 PM on May 30, 2008

re-read everything - really, the best thing to do when wanting to remember anything is simple repetition & re-exposure

writing out a small summary or book report often helps me to remember things - trying to put things into your own words makes your mind "chew slowly" and "taste" things, instead of just gobbling them down

even better was when I was involved in a Free School project & would prepare curriculum (i.e., annotated outlines) for the courses - I still remember details from those today & that was years ago - like harlequin said, it was because I was using it on a regular basis (teaching the courses)

and, seconding grumblebee on the reading aloud thing - I've found time & again that reading aloud can bring out meanings in the text I was completely glossing over when reading silently - plus, it's fun
posted by jammy at 12:55 PM on May 30, 2008

I've just started using a 3"x5" notecard as my bookmark when I read books - I almost always have a pen on me anyway, and now I have somewhere to write notes about stuff in the book I find interesting. And, my hopeful thought is that I'll use one side of the card for a short summary when I'm done. Then, when the book goes back on my bookshelf, the card stays with it. If I don't own the book, the notes will go in the library program I have. I just started this with my last book, so no idea if this will work or help.
posted by bibbit at 1:46 PM on May 30, 2008

Wired magazine ran an article this month about memory, particularly about Piotr Wozniak's.

Article here. It even was on the blue here.

There's a pattern in cognitive psychology that he dealt with via a computer (that was difficult to address in the real world.) People forget in a pattern, and in fact, exponentially. Practice too soon, it's redundant. Practice too late, and you've already forgotten it. The key to memorization is to be just before you forget the data. This method is called spaced repetition.

And he wrote a program called Supermemo. I haven't tried it yet, but it's on my list of stuff to look at when I get a little time. There are a number of versions for different Computer OS as well.
posted by filmgeek at 3:21 PM on May 30, 2008

Yeah if you're looking for a good freeware implementation of the spaced repetition algorithm for flashcards, I can vouch for Mnemosyne. It's pretty great.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 3:38 PM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read aloud. Brain activity is much higher when reading aloud.
posted by neblina_matinal at 4:02 PM on May 30, 2008

SuperMemo, yeah.
posted by Nattie at 5:58 PM on May 30, 2008

If you want to learn, make like you're doing it for a class: Highlight important or interesting bits, then go back and take notes.

I find it helps to get information on one subject from multiple sources (which may include documentary films, WikiPedia, or pretty much anything else) and compare them. What do they all mention? What's emphasized? What's left out?

The idea is to get your brain thinking about the stuff rather than trying to magically absorb it all straight from the page.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:03 PM on May 30, 2008

When I was taking teaching methods classes to become a teacher, several of my litereacy books suggested the following strategies for improving reading comprehension:

-After reading a chunk of text, stop to summarize, ask a question, make a prediction, clarify unknown or ambiguous words and phrases,

-read the captions, subtitles, text boxes, headings, charts, graphs, etc.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:09 PM on May 30, 2008

In a talk I heard, this philosopher advocated writing a brief summary, in a notebook, of every book or article that one reads. He says it increases retention.
posted by jayder at 9:39 AM on May 31, 2008

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