How to Read In a Way That You Can Recall More of What You Learn

Everyone does a lot of reading nowadays. Our average words per minute today is more than it was thirty years ago. Apart from a good old paperback, we now have blogs, lengthy PDF reports, eBooks, and other readable information being hurled at us at such a rapid pace that our brains cannot catch them all.

Reading a lot gives us the illusion that we’re learning a lot. I used to believe that the more I read, the more intelligent I become. On the contrary, hoarding information might be counter-productive beyond a certain amount if we give little thought about the quality with which we do it.

Acknowledging that I am no Bill Gates, who can store more data and process information faster than the average person, I became more conscious about the effectiveness of my learning. I thought about how I can commit more of what I learn in my long-term memory, making the most out of each hour I spend reading.

Take a look at The Learning Pyramid:

Photo credit: Heine Ventures
  • We retain 5% of what is lectured to us.
  • We retain 10% of what we read.
  • We retain 20% of what we watch and hear.
  • We retain 30% of what is demonstrated to us.
  • We retain 50% of what we discuss with others.
  • We retain 75% of what we practice by doing.
  • We retain 90% of what we teach others.

We retain a measly 10% of what we read, and that number goes down when we exert less mental effort. Given that, why do many people still read to learn? How come some of the most successful people in the world are advocates of tireless reading?

Before we try to answer that, keep in mind that there are four fundamental reading techniques:

  1. Scanning. We do this when we look for specific details within a text, like a date or a name. One example is looking for our flight schedule on an airport TV.
  2. Skimming. This is when we read with a specific purpose in mind, for instance, to get the gist of a newspaper or magazine article.
  3. Extensive reading. When we read for pleasure, often with a novel or a business book, we quickly turn pages while minimizing distractions like stopping to look up an unknown word in the dictionary.
  4. Intensive reading. This is when we exert mental effort to absorb details and extract as much meaning as possible. We do this when proof-reading a contract, analyzing a financial report, or study short stories for a literature class.

The way we read and the things we do with what we read matter.

In increasing cognitive effort and involving other study methods, we improve our recall of information by a larger margin. I call that effective reading.

Effective reading concretizes abstract ideas and articulates nuanced experiences. It helps us become more aware and attuned to our environment.

Effective reading does to the brain what exercise does to the body. Amazing things happen when neurons are fired up, lighting other parts of the brain. We increase not just IQ, but other kinds of intelligence, too.

Effective reading is to paint color on what used to be black, white, and grey, to add detail to what used to be plain.

Effective reading stores practical knowledge that comes in handy when needed. It helps bring theory to life.

It starts with the right mindset.

For reading to be effective, you must be eager to learn. Curiosity is what drives the effort to uncover more and more things we do not know.

Back then, peer pressure and billionaire advice pressured me into finishing as many books as I could in a year, to the point that I chose to read easier books to tick off as many as I could off my list. I’d quickly move from one book to another, frustrated by how slow I read compared to others. Having the wrong intentions took the fun away from learning.

One day, I came across Sean D’Souza’s advice about the myth of reading faster, which changed my perspective. Since then, I took off the mounting pressure I put on myself to sprint, and learned to enjoy the view as I go.

In order to read effectively, you must combine different reading techniques and study methods. I’d like to share with you a couple of techniques I gathered over the years to savor information that I find useful.

1. Be diligent in looking up an unknown word or a brief history if it helps enrich your understanding.

It may be irksome to stop the flow of reading, but some texts are designed for the intermediate level. If new to the subject, faced with a roadblock that keeps you from progressing, it makes sense to get it out of the way first.

2. Re-read, because you’re sure to uncover something new each time.

Most people don’t do this and fail to retain the details they missed out the first time. Familiarizing yourself with a concept requires you to review a text again and again. The more you repeat it, the more you absorb its entirety.

When I read a valuable book, I go through it thrice in what I call the sandwich method:

  • On the first time, read it extensively. Breeze through the text but stop occasionally to look up critical words and references.
  • Read more intensively the second time. Ponder on anything that struck you, write the outline (a form of reverse-engineering), and zoom in on important concepts. The important thing is to process the parts that are most valuable to you.
  • Close the sandwich by skimming through the whole text again to get a coherent picture of the book’s main idea and its key points. I often recite a brief summary out loud because it forces me to clearly articulate my thoughts.

Instead of doing this with the whole book, you can also do it chapter by chapter.

For the sandwich method to be effective, the intervals between one step and the next shouldn’t take months to a year. By then, it would be as if you’re reading for the first time.

It’s different when you re-read a year after completing the sandwich method, though. It’s like a refresher — it won’t be as strenuous because you already experienced severe mental crunching a year before. You’ll surely be surprised by how much you can still uncover (and recover).

3. Create a favorable reading environment.

For me, it is being away from distracting sounds, putting on classical music (or no music at all), and reading under sunlight or bright blue light.

This includes your internal environment — having the right mind frame. Avoid reading under heightened negative emotions, as your amygdala, the emotional part of the brain, overtakes your neocortex, the part of the brain that controls cognition.

When you’re constantly distracted by other thoughts, consider taking a break, or try to call back your focus. I do this by reading aloud until my full attention is back on the text.

4. Highlight, and highlight wisely!

Whether you overkill or not, set a system for marking your books. With which color will you highlight memorable quotes? What symbols indicate the main points or confusing ones? You can also use a pen to mark with symbols.

5. Have a notebook handy!

Highlighters are not the only tools in your arsenal. Everyone will have a use for taking notes while reading, be it a mind map, a dump for unknown words, or a list of action points.

I often transfer my hand-written notes to OneNote because it forces me to organize my thoughts. Storing them on the cloud is like uploading my thoughts on a digital file. Whenever I need material, I can just pull up ideas with a search button instead of rummaging through piles of paper.

6. Make tools to help you practice what you learn.

Instead of grabbing your book every time you need to rehearse its content, convert the narratives into shortcuts for complex decision-making. But before making your own, try to look for frameworks done by others to save time.

Here are a couple of great visual templates from Canva:

Building on the learning pyramid, here are other techniques to apply after reading:

  • Write about what you learned and try to publish it, be it on a blog or an Instagram caption. If you aren’t comfortable with that, write as if you will by putting your insights in order.
  • Explore new perspectives about the subject matter by discussing it with someone.
  • Learn through other mediums by watching a video, listening to a podcast, or reading an article about the topic. I often find apps, interest groups, and other resources that build on what I learned when I do this. Follow your curiosity, and it might lead you to a whole new world!
  • If you have an avenue, teach it to others. It’s the surest way to retain what you learned.
This is just an illustration and not based on scientific data.

Keep in mind that you should be selective about the books you intend to take seriously.

Do it only if you know you’ll reap tremendous value from committing the subject matter to your long-term memory.

The more you read effectively, the more intelligent you’ll become.

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