Read to Remember Part I: SQ3R

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If you’ve been around the computer industry for a while, you’re no doubt aware that we are afflicted by information overload. There’s too much information and knowledge to be absorbed by one person in one lifespan. And that same body of knowledge continues to morph and shift with the capricious tides of the industry.

A recent article on SitePoint discussed How Not to Get Overwhelmed as a Developer. It advocates specialization in order to avoid eventual burnout. That’s a good start, but even subfields have become so vast that even then you feel overwhelmed under the torrent of technobabble. Further adding to your frustration, you read an excellent article or two, and within 8 hours, you’ve forgotten 80% of what you read. That’s annoying. In this post I’d like to introduce you a time-tested reading technique which can boost recall from that measly 20% to a respectable 80%. It’s called SQ3R. Combine that with the techniques of mind-mapping and you’ll find yourself better equipped to face the information onslaught.

SQ3R: Mindful reading

I first read about SQ3R in Don’t Forget, a fun and informative book with simple exercises for improving your memory. Its target audience is geriatrics, but what’s the difference between sitting and watching TV while knitting and sitting in front of your computer all day? Apparently the SQ3R method of reading was developed during the 1930’s and honed during WWII to more quickly train military personnel.

Down to business, how does it work?

SQ3R stands for Survey; Question; Read; Recite; Review.

Survey

For most people, our natural tendency is to open the book, start reading from “It was a dark and stormy night”, and continue page by intriguing page until “the butler did it”. Resist that urge! Rather, approach it like you would a fine wine that you’re tasting for the first time. Start by surveying the text in its entirety, looking ahead at the basic outline of the material. Note any headings, subheadings, blurbs, and graphics. Try to get a sense of the big picture.

Question

Then, ask yourself questions about the material you skimmed over in the first step. Remember those subheadings? A good start would be to rephrase them as questions. You can also employ the classic 5W+H method of questioning that helps journalists cover all their bases when they’re writing a story. (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How). Ideally, write the questions down and use them as test questions later.

R1: Read!

Now that you’ve surveyed and pondered the text under consideration, read with a sense of urgency! You might even consider time-boxing your reading session to help fuel your focus. Don’t just read passively - actively search for the answers to your questions. Ask yourself how each bit of information relates to the overall theme and how it integrates into the whole. How does it relate to what you already know? How is it different? Are there any apparent contradictions?

R2: Recite

Pause at the end of a long paragraph and try to paraphrase the text you just read in your own words, verbally or even in your own beautiful handwriting. Make sure you can give a sensible answer to the corresponding question you formed in the R1 step.

R3: Review

After you’ve read the entire section or chapter, pause to review the whole thing. Try to answer the questions you formulated earlier. See how much you can recall without looking. Straight recall is much harder than prompted recall and may help you form better memory traces. Make sure you understand how each sub-point connects to the overall theme. Then, skim through the chapter again and see what you missed. Rinse and repeat for the next chapter.

To really take the review step to the next level, try explaining it to someone else, perhaps as a blog post. ;)

SQ3R sounds like work right? That’s because it is. (Believe me, it’s even a bear to type with all that shifting!) But work works wonders for yer ‘ole remember-er. The more deeply and intricately you process something, the more you’ll remember. So be ye not wary of yon work m’ laddie. We westerners and our aversion to workin’ - It’s a cryin’ shame if you ask me. :)

Give this method a shot and you should find that your short-term recall increases dramatically. Of course to make sure the fragile new memories stick around for a while, you’ll have to be an accommodating host. What would you do if someone invited you over to their house and then proceeded to ignore you? You’d up and leave right? That’s what your precious memory guests will do too if you don’t pay them a visit from time to time. Ideally, use a form of periodic spaced repetition that reintroduces you to learned material at ever-increasing interval lengths. A wonderful flashcard program that incorporates this concept is Anki.

There’s nothing like teaching and testing to mercilessly shatter any illusion of knowledge your brain was harboring.

This concludes Part I of Read to Remember. In the next article I’ll discuss a technique to further enhance long-term reading recall: Mind mapping.