Using active recall while you read will improve your reading comprehension by an order of magnitude
In my article about using active recall while you study, I described the basics of the method, gave you an example of how to use it, and showed you how dramatic the results are if you use active recall compared to other study methods. Since most learning in school occurs by reading textbooks, I feel it is important to address how to apply using active recall while you read because it can save you a lot of time studying. Reading is generally categorized as passive learning, however, there are things you can do to make it an active learning method, thereby greatly improving your reading comprehension.
Can you think of a book you read that you were spellbound by? A book that was so good you could imagine yourself being there in that time and setting and interacting with the characters. A book that you couldn’t put down while you were reading and even now, years later, you can recall most of the details about the plot and the characters involved. A few books I read became deeply engrained in my memory banks, and perhaps even altered certain aspects of how I see the world and maybe even influenced some of the personality characteristics I have today. So what’s the difference between a book that grabs hold of your brain and stays with you for decades, and a book that goes in one eye and out the other? There are two important things going on here:
First, whenever your brain is captivated by something it activates the emotion centers of your brain, which causes your brain to release molecules that enhance the strength of the connections your brain cells are making. As scientists say, this causes neurons to undergo long-term potentiation (LTP), which makes them more sensitive to future retrieval events. This just means that your brain sees these events as important and tries to turn them into permanent memories so you can remember them later. And it was just caused by a few extra molecules released by your brain. This is clearly another thing you should keep in mind – if you can make reading, learning and studying enjoyable, interesting and even somewhat exciting (Whoa! Calm down now!), your brain will be tricked into thinking that whatever you’re learning is important and will process it into your long-term memory stores.
Second, whether you realized it or not, your brain was performing some active recall. After you read a captivating scene, one that engages your imagination and senses, your brain won’t just forget about it as soon as you finish the chapter, it will replay the scene over again in your mind to solidify the details into your memory banks. If you’ve just read something inspiring you might think “Wow, that was really inspiring, I need to remember this story next time I’m feeling down.” If you read something funny: “LOL, that was hilarious!” Trust me, teenagers talk and even think in abbreviations now. Something scary: “OMG, I’m not going to sleep tonight!” A Twilight Series book: “Edward, you understand me!” A mystery: “I can’t believe the twist at the end.” Or in the case of you Fifty Shades of Grey fans “Holy hot tamales that was a steamy scene!” If you watch people read books at Barnes and Noble you can tell when they get to a memorable scene because the expression on their face will change: their eyebrows will move, their head might tilt to the side, their eyes will widen or narrow, and they’ll change their posture. This is usually an indication of a connection strong enough to solidify the scene into a person’s long-term memory.
And if the scene truly spellbound you, trapped you inside your senses, you will likely replay it again in your mind later that day. And if you encounter a similar event in your own life you will undoubtedly relate it back the book that just captivated you. Ok, I’ll be realistic here, you’ll relate it back to that crappy TV sitcom you watched last week: “OMG, this reminds me of that scene in Gossip Girl when Dan and Serena broke up for like the fourth time…” The process of bringing back those memories out of nowhere, from scratch, is the definition of active recall. Not to mention that recalling the details at a later time is also spaced repetition, which is doubly good.
So here’s what you have to force your brain to do while reading if you want to retain more information: stop periodically and without looking back at the pages, summarize what you’ve just read. You can say it out loud to yourself or, if studying at the library, just think about it. And try to make connections with other material as you’re taking in the new stuff – your brain can much more easily form connections with old material than build a brand new circuit from scratch. While you’re getting used to this active reading process, or if you’re going over very dense, complicated material, you might want to stop after every paragraph and summarize. Then you can gradually work up to a couple of paragraphs, and then entire sections before you stop and do a free recall of the main points and discuss in your head how everything fits together.
Pretend you’re going to have to teach someone about what you’ve just read.
The best piece of advice I have for helping you make sure you’re using this technique correctly is to pretend that you are going to have to teach what you’re reading to someone else after you’re finished reading. Why? Because if you adapt the mindset that you are going to have to explain this stuff back to someone in a little bit, your brain will be actively engaged in trying to understand and distill all the information you’re reading. It will ask the important questions for you: “Whoa, I missed that, what is the octet rule and why is it important?” Your brain is smarter than you might give it credit for sometimes. If you listen to it, it will tell you where the gaps in your knowledge are so you can go back and fill them in. Your brain definitely will not do this if you are just passively blasting through the material, but if you can be of the mindset that you have to understand this now so you can explain it to someone else when you’re finished reading then you’ll grasp it much better.
Monitor your facial expressions
And just like watching people’s facial expressions at Barnes and Noble when they’re reading a saucy book, you can determine your level of engagement by monitoring your own facial expressions – if you have none, you might as well be playing Xbox while someone reads you War and Peace because you’ll probably remember just as much. I’m not saying your face needs to look like Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura, but your eyebrows should be furrowing frequently if you’re not understanding something. Nod your head if you get it!
So here’s the take-home message:
Using active recall while reading will greatly improve your understanding and retention of the material. You should stop and summarize what you’ve read periodically, either verbally or silently. Pretend you have to re-teach the material to someone else as soon as you’re finished reading, and monitor your facial expressions to make sure you are engaged. Soon this active reading style will become second nature and you’ll absorb information faster than my chihuahua inhales a chicken ball.