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4 tips for reading better and retaining more

Reading is critical to success in school, whatever point in your education you are at.  But there are better and worse ways to do it. Here are a few tips on how to read better, retain more and save yourself study time later.

  1. Read with a purpose: Beyond “the teacher said so” there is always a reason why you are reading something.  Are you reading it to understand an argument?  Learn facts?  Background material?  Whatever the reason you were assigned that piece of reading, focus on it as you read.  If you aren’t clear on what you are trying to get out of the material, ask the teacher before you read.  Write the purpose at the top of a piece of paper and have it right there.
  2. Read with paper and pen: As you read, take notes.  Keep looking at your purpose and write to answer the question or support what you are doing.  If done well you will be able to get everything you need to study for an exam from your notes.  (I do advise doing this by hand, since the act of writing often helps people remember things while the act of typing isn’t wired in the same way.  However if you prefer to do this electronically, go ahead. )
  3. Notes should be brief: You are not rewriting the piece.  Think in terms of bullet points or outlines.  Short sentences, indentations, and lists will help you remember what you read AND make sense of it later.
  4. Leave white space around your notes:  When you go to class you are going to take these notes with you and use the discussion in class to fill in any blanks.  Because of that you want to have space to add things, draw connections that you may not have made before, and clarify things.  Remember, the goal is to not have to go back to the base reading later, so these notes should be good.

Beyond this, reading more productively depends on what you are reading.  Here are a few examples of common things you might be reading and how to handle them.

  • History - Generally you are trying to understand what happened and why it happened.  Therefore you should start by building a timeline of the reading (either across the top of the page or down one side if you need more space).  Then make notes on WHY things happened; what were the goals that one group/person was trying to achieve that caused the next major action to take place.
  • Literature - Generally you will be trying to understand both the story itself (who/what/when/where) and the themes that the author is talking about.  For this I suggest dividing your notes into two parts: One that deals with the story itself, the characters (who they were and just a brief sentence about their primary motivations), the time and place of the story and perhaps a bit of information about the author.  The second part should deal with themes and techniques: is this a love story?  War story? Is there a theme of family?  Responsibility?  Greed?  These are the things you will end up writing about on a test, with the items in part one supporting your analysis.  Thinking about it as you read will help later.
  • Philosophy - What is the argument that the author is trying to make?  What are their main points?  How do they structure their argument?  Do they address all the questions you had as you read the article?  What other questions would you ask?
  • Math - Here you want to focus on pulling out vocabulary and key formula’s that will be used.  Annotating an example (by writing the example down and then making your own arrows and notes to explain each part of the process) can help you study later.
  • Science -Background information, key new terms and items, and the properties of different things being studied should be captured.  If there is a life cycle being presented then create a time line that shows all of the stages.

There are lots of other types of reading, but this should give you a good idea of how to start.


Shannon posted last week about highlighting your reading.  I tend to use highlighters primarily for key sentences that either illuminate an important point or that may be useful to quote in a paper later.  If you do, make sure you make a note for yourself that you’ve highlighted the passage so that when you review or write later, you can easily find it again.

The goal here is to make your notes complete, legible and brief enough that when it comes time to study you can do so quickly and easily.  Taking good notes on your reading is the first step to better grades and more productive use of your time.

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6 Responses to “4 tips for reading better and retaining more”

  1. Thássius V. says:

    A good tip is to always have a highlighter near you.

  2. [...] 4 tips for reading better and retaining more [Gearfire] [...]

  3. [...] 8. GearFire: Tips for Students - 4 tips for reading better and retaining more [...]

  4. These are some good tips for improving reading comprehension, especially the ones about jotting down some brief notes while reading. When I was in school, I used the note taking technique for the times when I had to write some sort of paper (book report, essay, etc.) based on the reading material. By sketching out a quick outline of the main ideas, I was able to write the paper much easier afterward and did not struggle with “writer’s block” very much because I already had something written down that I could use as a starting point.

  5. Daniel says:

    Don’t read every word. For my Masters degree i had to read vast amounts of pdf article documents. I learned that if i read every other word i could still absorb all the information that i needed. The brain is an advanced piece of kit, it can fill in the gaps, therefore saving you a copious amount of time for other tasks. Such as, the bane of my life, reference lists.

  6. I agree with you Daniel!

    I do skimming when I’m reading; it’s less time consuming and I can easily absorb the thought of the text. But in listening, there are certain words that I have to jot down (alien words) and the rest will be stock knowledge. This will test how good is your memory.

  7. 851d042fe8fc says:



  8. DetoxMed says:

    Hi Rebecca!

    I think, that tip #4 (Leave white space around your notes) is not so good. I use this technique, but… so, I don’t reccomend it.

    Best regards, Mike
    Email: [email protected]

  9. Khurshid says:

    Great Rebecca,

    I found it very helpful because I used to each and every word that also makes boring and tiresome.

    Thanks again.

    From Pakistan