How to Read – and Actually Remember What You Read – 3 Practical Strategies

What’s the last book that you read? What was it about? If it was fiction, what happened in it? If it was non-fiction, what was the author’s main argument?

Chances are high that, like many people, you remember very little of what you read.

When we read, we’re usually fixated on finding out what happens next, and on simply getting to the end. As a result, we tend to read quickly, without stopping to reflect on what we’ve read, to take notes, or to otherwise engage with the text.

As a result, we forget the information very quickly.

The fact is, our brains were not designed to hold huge amounts of information at once. Our capacity for immediate recall of information is relatively small.

For that reason, our brains must constantly sort through our experiences to prioritize important vs. unimportant information, saving only the essentials so that it can remain free to function. We forget most of what we read or watch or hear within 24 hours.

If the text you’re reading is on a screen, the problem is even worse. Research has found that we have a harder time remembering content that we read online. And one paper by Ziming Liu, a professor of information science at San Jose State University who studies reading behavior, confirmed we tend to skim more when we read digital text, and to read printed text on paper more carefully.

The lack of tactile and spatial information in digital text also makes it harder to remember and retain information. Have you ever flipped through a book to look up something you’ve read before, and had a vague sense of where on the page the information was? That’s because we’re wired to effortlessly remember spatial information — as described in greater depth in this post.

Obviously, forgetting most of what we read is less than ideal. After all, books, articles, and other forms of the written word are the primary way we learn. They teach us things that make us smarter, that convey practical skills, that teach us how to think and make our way in the world, and that help us grow and develop as humans.

And given how much time we need to spend reading for school, it seems like a shame for all that time to go to waste, and all that knowledge to be immediately forgotten.

Fortunately, there are a number of practical strategies you can embrace to help you read more deeply, and actually remember what you read. We’ve summed up the most useful ones here.

How to Read (and Remember What You Read)

1. Create the environment and situation you need to focus.

This might seem obvious, but it’s always worth repeating a few basics of learning. You’ll get the most out of your reading when you’re focused and well-rested, so:

  • Read when you are well-rested: Otherwise, you’ll be doomed to reread the same page over and over again, without taking any of it in.
  • Eliminate distractions: Figure out what conditions you need to focus, whether that means a quiet room, a computer that isn’t connected to the internet, or a hard copy in lieu of a digital version of the text.

2. Slow down.

Have you ever binge-watched an entire season of an online show in one day? Have you noticed that when you do that, it’s much harder to remember what happened, compared to when you watch one episode a week, or even one episode a day? That’s because we need time to process the information.

A study conducted by Jared Horvath, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, found that people who binge-watched TV shows forgot them much more quickly than people who watched the episodes once a week. (The binge-watchers did score higher on a quiz about the show taken right after watching the show, but after several months, they scored lower than the people who watched it weekly.)

Watching the show once a week made people regularly call back up their memories of the show, and recalling information repeatedly is how memories get reinforced. “If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time,” writes Julie Beck in an Atlantic Monthly article about Horvath’s study. “You’re never actually reaccessing [the information],” Horvath says in the piece.

3. Find ways to engage with the text.

Have you ever found yourself automatically picking up a pen during class, or during a phone call, and writing down random words and doodles? Congratulations — without even realizing it, you were working to better encode the information you were hearing into your brain. We learn and remember things better when we actively engage with the information.

That includes methods like:

  • taking notes during class
  • drawing pictures in the margins of books
  • highlighting important passages
  • seeking out patterns or other information while we read – this might mean flagging passages that relate to other passages you’ve read, or looking for clues about how the writer has structured their writing.

“Active reading — taking notes, sketching, and talking with a friend about the text — can … help forge mental connections between the information you’re taking in and what you already know, increasing your retention,” writes Emily Underwood in a piece for Forge about ways to remember what you read.

“This doesn’t mean passively highlighting, re-reading, or retyping what you’re reading but effortfully engaging with the text: jotting down your own thoughts, questions, and connections that occur to you, whether you do it in the margins or take notes elsewhere.”

As for specifics, some techniques we recommend are to:

  • Summarize what you’ve read
  • Outline the work – which will reveal its structure, and the author’s thinking when organizing the information, to you
  • Read with question in mind – such as, “How does this relate to my life?” or “How is this similar and different from this other book I read on a similar topic?”

“Engaged readers are constantly making associations between what they’re reading and what they already know, evaluating how the material fits with their past experiences, trying to decide if they believe or agree with what they’re reading or taking another person’s perspective,” writes Underwood in her Forge piece. Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf explains why in the piece: “There’s a lot of hypothesis-generating that goes on in your frontal lobes: ‘Oh, this is true. This is what it means. Oh, wait a minute, is that really true?’” she says.

We also recommend looking into the Cornell note-taking method, which encourages readers to:

  • jot down questions they have about a text
  • re-summarize the information
  • do all this soon after learning something, which is the optimal time to truly commit the information to memory

4. Skim first, then reread analytically.

The classic, bestselling tome “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren recommends reading books — at least, important books that you truly want to learn deeply — at least three times.

They recommend doing a quick overview first, of a book’s title, table of contents, index, and maybe a few paragraphs here and there throughout the book, especially from the conclusion.

Then, they recommend doing a very quick skim, to get a general sense of the book’s central argument or thesis.

Then, subsequent readings involve slowing down and analyzing the text — mapping out the author’s argument, noting the structure of the book, and then once you really start digging in, asking questions, reflecting on what aspects of the text you agree and disagree with, and comparing it to other, similar works you’ve read.

We realize that realistically speaking, chances are low that you’ll actually read a book, article, or paper the three or more times that the authors recommend.

But, we do agree that reading something repeatedly will commit it more deeply to memory, and that moreover, it’s helpful to first skim very quickly, to get a general sense of the argument and content as quickly as possible, and then to do a second, slower read devoted to taking notes, asking questions, summarizing, and otherwise analyzing and engaging with the text.

Those are just a few of many great ways to read more deeply, and therefore, to learn and remember more of what you read. Embrace these techniques, and the next time someone asks you about the last book you read, you won’t draw a blank. 

Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.