Active Reading: Strategies to Remember What you Read

Active Reading

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Reading is a great way to develop intellectual curiosity and understand ideas better. However, we usually fail to retain a whole lot of what we read. This, in a way, defeats the purpose of reading to learn more about something. Using Active Reading to actively engage with the content can help you retain what you learned better and stay intellectually curious. It is important to keep yourself interested and engaged with what you read. This could be your study material from school or any book to learn more about a subject. Let’s learn more about active reading and how you can become an active reader to remember what you read.

Active Reading: Quick Look

What is Active Reading?

Active reading is the technique of actively engaging with the reading material. This involves asking questions to delve deeper and capturing the main ideas.

The main focus of active reading is to understand what you are reading better and put it in terms of what you have learned or want to learn. Using something like the Feynman Technique while active reading can also help you identify what you have not fully understood.

Active vs Passive Reading

A lot of the time we tend to read and reread something which increases our familiarity with the text. However, this passive approach to reading does not correlate with understanding or mastery of the subject.

Illusion Of Knowing

Passively reading and rereading the text leads to the Illusion of Knowing. According to the authors of Make it Stick:

“Rising familiarity with a text and fluency in reading it can create an illusion of mastery”

You could use Spaced Repetition or Retrieval Practice to counter this. Using Active Reading can also help counter the illusion of knowing.

One way to sidestep this illusion is by testing yourself while you are reading. It is important to force yourself to retrieve what you are learning from your memory. This, by far, gives you a clear picture of what you know, and what you don’t. Your goal is to put yourself to the test and explain what you have learned to yourself as effortlessly as possible. Retrieval Practice makes you a better learner while helping you avoid using the exact text in your study material as something to lean on.

Goals for Active Reading

Before we look at how to become an active reader, let’s look at some of the final goals that you should pursue when you are reading actively.

Capture The Big And Relevant Ideas

Extracting what is relevant from a whole pile of information is key to learning better and efficiently. This ability to extract relevant information is the basis of rule learning and structure building. According to the authors of Make it Stick:

“People who as a matter of habit extract underlying principles or rules from new experiences are more successful learners than those who take their experiences at face value, failing to infer lessons that can be applied later in similar situations”

Capture Big and Relevant Ideas From Text

Capturing the big and relevant ideas enables you to form a structure in your head through mental models. This structure also makes it easy to retrieve the information to apply in real-life situations. Developing the habit of looking for the big ideas when you read anything is the basis of reading to learn better and remember the ideas better.

Simplify and Explain The Ideas

Quite often the resource you are reading is not written in a way that is easy to understand. Besides the use of technical words, the relevant information itself is scattered throughout the text. It becomes your responsibility to draw all the relevant ideas from different sections of the text and form a coherent structure.

Simplify and Explain Ideas
The Feynman Technique is one of the best ways to explain what you read without all the jargon. At times, we tend to lean on the jargon from the text to avoid delving deeper and see if we truly know the information.

The Feynman Technique can be summarized in the following four steps:

  1. Choose a concept to learn
  2. Write the concept down like you would explain it to a child
  3. Identify the gaps and understand the concepts better
  4. Review and Simplify

Besides helping us simplify the text and better understand the information, the Feynman Technique also helps us test what we know and what we don’t. Read about the Feynman Technique and how you can use it effectively here.

Add New Information To What You Know

Once you have simplified the ideas from the reading material, it is also equally important to connect what you just learned with what you already know. The process of expressing a piece of text in your own words and then connecting it with what you already know is called Elaboration.

Add New Information to What you Know

When you are learning or honing a skill, creating a mental map or mental models enables you to keep building on your knowledge. According to the authors of Make it Stick:

“The more than you can elaborate on how new learning relates to what you already know, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create to remember it later.”

Another objective with connecting new information with you what you already know is to refine a process. By gathering your past and present experiences you can start to visualize how you can perform better next time.

Ask Questions

Asking questions helps in two ways. First of all, asking questions keeps you intellectually curious and much more open to accepting new information. Secondly, asking questions is also a good way of retrieving what you know and testing yourself.

Ask Questions to stoke your curiosity and to test yourself

In terms of Intellectual Curiosity, your motivation behind asking more questions helps you delve deeper into the subject and also know the subject better. These questions would eventually push you out of your comfort zone to seek new sources of information. These sources can be more text to read or even consulting with more experienced people.

Asking questions to test yourself can help you identify the parts of the topic you haven’t mastered yet. Testing yourself also involves forcing yourself to retrieve something from memory which leads to better learning. Moreover, combining spacing and retrieval reduces the chances of forgetting what you have learned.

How to Become An Active Reader

Now let’s look at some ways you can develop the habit of reading actively.

Pseudo Skimming

In the book How to Become A Straight-A Student, Cal Newport suggests skimming relevant sources during the initial stages of working on a thesis. He expands on his blog about Pseudo Skimming which can be useful when you are trying to capture the big and relevant ideas. Read a summary of How to Become A Straight-A Student here to learn about the main ideas in the book.

Pseudo Skimming for Active Reading: Important and Filler Ideas
Skimming a piece of text involves quickly running through it to get a bare-bones, basic idea. Reading the text involves processing the text thoroughly. Pseudo Skimming fits in between these two approaches and couples the benefits of speed (from skimming) and comprehension (from reading).

The paragraphs in a piece to text can be divided into two types, each with a different purpose: important and filler. The important paragraphs are the ones that contain the necessary information that you would need to apply in some real-life situation. Filler paragraphs might contain anecdotes that might not necessarily provide you with a whole lot of new information. Your objective is to discern which parts of the text are important and which are filler.

The text might start out with a backstory or an anecdote to lay the foundation of what is to come. You can zoom past these and spend more time on the parts that actually enumerate the crux of the information. By constantly questioning what parts are important and not you will get better with time. Pseudo Skimming is just another skill you can develop and get better at with more reading and time.

Group Ideas Together

When you are reading something you might be reading about multiple ideas over multiple paragraphs and pages. Grouping different ideas help simplify the text, capture the main ideas, and build structures to build on the knowledge you already have.

Group ideas together from different sources for Active Reading

Grouping ideas from a text can bring about a lot more organization in your learning process. The concepts you learn might span multiple paragraphs, chapters, or even books. Bringing all of this together is also useful for future reference. I prefer using a note-taking app like Notion because it is so flexible. With an app, you can keep adding more relevant information to a section which might be tedious if you prefer writing down your ideas in a notebook.

Take Notes

Besides the relevant information being split over many chapters, paragraphs, or books, information could also be accumulated over time. This is especially important to address if you are learning for the long term.

Creating relevant sections/notebooks based on your preferred approach to note-taking, you can keep adding new information to what you already know. If you use a note-taking app like Notion, you have a lot of flexibility in adding, editing, and correcting information. However, if you use a notebook, you could use different notebooks for different topics or split your notebook into different sections each dealing with a single topic. You could also tag relevant sections and pages with sticky notes.

Active Reading is just another skill you can develop and become good at over time. It can reduce one of the biggest pressure points for a reader: remembering what you read over the long term.

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