9 simple reading strategies that will improve your memory and make you smarter

  • Active reading is a strategy for remembering more of what you read.  
  • There are plenty of simple, creative methods for retaining more information from any text.
  • For example, skimming the text before you dig into the material is a way to familiarize yourself with the important themes of a book and know what to focus on. 
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Plenty of people acknowledge forgetting most of what they read, no matter how much they enjoyed the text.

But just because forgetting is a human phenomenon doesn't mean you should simply accept it. In fact, there are plenty of simple, creative strategies for retaining more of what you read — whether it be novels, news articles, or scientific textbooks.

Whether you're prepping for school to start back up again or just trying to enrich your reading experience, below are the most practical techniques — bonus points if you can remember all of them tomorrow.

Become familiar with the topic

Blogger and web developer Ryan Battles recommended gaining some background knowledge before you dive into a particular text.

"The more you understand about a particular subject the more 'hooks' keep the facts in there," he wrote. That's because you're able to make more associations between the new information and what you already know.

You can even start by reading a Wikipedia article on the subject as preparation, he added.

Skim and scan the text first

An article by Bill Klemm, a professor of neuroscience, highlighted skimming as a key strategy for retaining information. Klemm has written several books like "The Learning Skills Cycle" on how to learn and improve your memory. 

He recommended that skimming the text for important topics and keywords beforehand can help you understand the context when you dig into the material. The idea isn't to skip the whole reading process, but being familiar with the general themes will help you remember the particulars, he wrote. 

Scanning can help you seek out specific facts in a text quickly. It also targets specific, important information and facts in a text. Scanning a section can keep your mind alert to specific facts and keywords from your reading. This is a useful technique that requires concentration. College students may find this method useful when preparing for a test. 

Take your time 

You may feel like you're taking in more information if you read as quickly as you can, especially if you've got a lot of information to cover.

But a 2016 study from the Association for Psychological Science suggests that there's a trade off between speed and accuracy, Quartz previously reported. In other words, chances are that the faster you read, the less you're able to take in and actually remember. Take your time reading, and you'll probably understand more of what you read at a deeper level. 

Take notes on the page

Never read without a pencil.

According to an article in the "Behavior Research Methods," journal, active reading strategies can help you make sense of complicated concepts. Danielle S. McNamara, a research professor of Arizona State University, introduced the concept of self-explanation reading, in which the process of taking notes and explaining the text to yourself actually helps you understand the material better.

Another technique is to practice paraphrasing the text into your own words. That way, you can ensure you understand the material before moving on to the next paragraph. 

Read out loud

Psychologist Art Markman wrote in a Psychology Today article that reading out loud may be a helpful strategy. Referring to a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology on the "production effect," Markman explained that the brain processes memory of items like a list of words. The 2010 study administered eight reading experiments — two of which involved reading a list of words out loud and in silence. 

The results showed that words spoken aloud were remembered much better than those that were read silently.

Ask yourself questions about the material

If you're reading a textbook, the question can be as simple as, "What is the main idea of this section?" If you're reading fiction, you can ask, "What are the motives of the character?" and "If you could rewrite this reading, what would your version be like?"

Read on paper

E-readers are convenient tools for when you want to bring a ton of books on vacation and for downloading stories in an instant, but a hard copy might be better for your memory. 

Research suggests that they could also undermine the strength of your memories. In a 2014 study led by Anne Mangen of Norway's Stavanger University, 50 participants were given the same short story to read. While half of them read the 28 pages on a Kindle, the other half read it on a paperback. The results found that readers who read it on paper remembered the story's chronology better.

Mangen said that's possibly because the piles of pages in your hands create a "tactile sense of progress" you don't get from a Kindle. (Of course, it's possible that people who are more accustomed to reading online may not have this problem.)

Read without distractions

Cut off any distractions for a set period of time when you're reading. This could even include the distraction of your mind — commit to no daydreaming, no emails, no phone, and no Netflix.

According to a Science Daily article, multitasking and distractions can impact your ability to remember. In an experiment among UCLA college students, 192 participants were divided into six groups for different memory tests. Some groups read a list of words with their undivided attention, while others were given distractions throughout the test. 

The results showed that students managed to remember words that they were told to be "more important," but distractions impaired their overall memory. 

Introduce the information to others

Peter Doolittle, an educational psychologist who spoke at a TedGlobal talk in 2013, detailed the importance — and limitations — of your "working memory," or the part of the brain that allows us to make sense of what's happening right now. The expert explained that part of remembering information is reflecting on what you read or finding personal examples to support the subject matter. 

Similar to why people join book clubs, talking about what you read to your friends and colleagues can help you better understand the frameworks.

Choose books that matter to you

Make sure you know why you're picking up the book. What intrigues you about it? Will it have a discernible effect on your personal development or contribute to a momentary escape to a different train of thought?

When you're impressed by something, there's a higher chance that you'll remember what you've learned and be able to tell others about it.

So choose books carefully, start as many as you want, and don't be ashamed if you finish only the select few you love.

Sherin Shibu and Tat Bellamy Walker contributed to an earlier version of this post. 

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