- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How to Stop Forgetting What You Read

For the next seven days (June 22nd, 2015 – June 29th, 2015) I’m going to be running a free, one-week learn faster bootcamp. I’ve run several of these before, sharing the best strategies I have for learning faster I’ve used in the MIT Challenge, the Year Without English and beyond.

This bootcamp is all about taking action. I don’t just want you to read, I actually want you to use the methods I share.

For that reason, I won’t be making a permanent public copy of the bootcamp lessons. I’ll only be sending out the lessons to people who have subscribed to my email newsletter. If you’ve already subscribed, don’t worry, you will get the lessons automatically. If you haven’t yet, click here [1], and join the newsletter before the bootcamp finishes to join us for the remaining six lessons.

Bootcamp Day One

To kick the week off, I’m going to start with a method to deal with one of the most frustrating problems of learning: forgetting things you’ve already learned.

How often do you read a book and find yourself forgetting many of the key points? If I picked up a random book from your bookshelf, could you accurately describe the plot, thesis or important takeaways?

If you can’t, you’re not alone. When people join this newsletter, in the first email I send them, I ask them to tell me their number one learning challenge. I’ve gotten thousands of them and I’ve read every single one. Struggling with forgetting is one of the most common complaints I’ve received.

How to Stop Forgetting What You’ve Read

There are two main methods. The first has to do with exploiting the difference between two types of memory processes in your brain. The second has to do with what you do while reading determining how well you can create memories.

To simplify things, I’m going to discuss the first strategy in this lesson. However, for those interested in learning more, I’ll be sharing the second one as well as dozens more of my favorite learning methods in Learning on Steroids, which I’ll be reopening for the very last time next week.

Until then, let me teach you about the first method to remember what you’ve read…

Most people think of remembering as a single type of activity. You either remember something or you don’t.

Interestingly, however, cognitive scientists have shown that you can actually separate the act of remembering into two different processes. These processes are linked, but they aren’t the same. Unfortunately, treating them as the same thing is often the reason many learners struggle so much with studying—they unwittingly confuse the two processes and fail to remember what they need to both in exams and in life.

Those two processes are recognition and recall.

Recognition vs. Recall

Recognition is an important memory ability. It’s what happens when you see a bird and know it’s a seagull. It’s what happens when someone says your name and you know they’re talking to you. It’s also what happens when you’re reading. To read this text you must individually recognize each of the words I’ve written.

Recall, on the other hand, is somewhat different. It’s the ability to pull up the answer to a question, without looking at it. If I ask you the capital of France, and you know the answer, Paris, it’s because you recalled it from memory.

Recall, unsurprisingly, is almost always harder than recognition. Asking you what is the capital of France, and you replying correctly, “Paris,” is much harder than me asking you “Is Paris the capital of France?” and you replying, “Yes.”

Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, recallable memory is usually what we want when we read books. Although some information is probably best knowing we can look it up when we need it, I generally read books because I want that knowledge to be useful in some way. I want to be able to recall the important ideas in situations where they are relevant: a conversation, a life decision, a work project. If I can’t recall them, they’re not that useful for me.

So what does this have to do with forgetting what you’ve read?

The problem is that if you want recallable memory, practicing recognition doesn’t help very much.

Unfortunately practicing recognition is virtually the only thing most people do when they read a book. When you’re reading a book, most of your time is spent recognizing what is being said. Only rarely do you have to specifically recall an idea, unprompted. If you’re reading a well-written book, you may never have to use recall as good writers know that recall is difficult and so they will often reiterate previously made points so that you don’t get confused.

Then, after you’ve read the book, you suddenly want this knowledge to be available in a recallable format. You want to be able to, given a conversation with a coworker, a question on an exam, or during a decision you have to make, be able to summon up the information that you previously had only practiced at being able to recognize it.

Given this pattern, it’s no wonder most people fail to recall much from books they’ve read.

How can you fix this and retain more of what you read?

The solution is simple: it’s what I call the Question Book Method.

The Question Book Method

Whenever you’re reading something that you want to remember, take notes. Except, don’t take notes which summarize the main points you want to recall. Instead, take notes which ask questions.

If you wanted to do it with this email, you could write down the question, “Q: What are the two different memory processes?” and the answer would be “A: Recall and recognition.”

Then, when you’re reading a book, quickly go through and test yourself on the questions you’ve generated from earlier chapters. Doing this will strengthen your recallable memory so that the information will be much easier to access when you need it.

This concept is quite simple, but there are some sticking points in getting it right, which I’ll outline.

First—don’t go overboard. Trying to recall every possible fact from a book will make the reading process so tedious that it might kill your love of reading. One question per chapter is probably more than enough for most books. For popular books, a dozen questions will probably be enough to capture the big points and main thesis.

Second—put page numbers which reference the answer. If you do forget a point, you’ll want to be able to check. Knowing that the answer to a big point is on page 36 will save your sanity later.

Third, make the technology simple. For paper books, I recommend an index card, since you can probably fit all of the questions on it back and front. Plus the index card also works as a bookmark, so you won’t have to go around looking for your notes later. If you use Kindle, make your questions as annotations in the book. Then you can see the annotations later to quiz yourself.

If you’re reading a textbook for a class, this method can scale up as well. You can use this to capture more detailed information which can help you learn the material even when other resources for practicing recall are unavailable. Here instead you might want a dedicated notebook to work alongside your textbook.

Take Action Now

The goal of this bookcamp isn’t to just give you tips: it’s to improve how you learn. If you’ve read this far, I want you to take action now and try out the method. Do this now:

1. Get an index card and a pen. If you don’t have an index card near you, get a piece of paper and fold it in half, then fold it in half again so it is a quarter of the original size.

2. Get out a book you’re currently reading, and swap the bookmark for this pen-and-index-card combo.

3. For the chapter you’re currently reading, write a question which, if you answer it correctly, will force you to recall the main idea from the chapter. Write it down on the index card and reference a page number where you can look it up if you forget.

If you’re using a Kindle or eReader, it’s even easier. Just make an annotation in the current chapter with your question. Then go to view your notes so you can see it for later recall.

That’s it for today’s lesson. Tomorrow I’ll be giving you a new method for learning better. At the end of this week, I’ll be reopening Learning on Steroids for the last time, my learning course which contains dozens more tactics like these which can help you retain information better and faster.

Don’t Miss the Bootcamp Lessons Before They’re Gone

This is just the first lesson out of seven, all free. I won’t be making permanent, public copies of the remaining six lessons. To get the rest you’ll have to sign up for the newsletter [1].