Thomas Frank talks about active reading. Active reading is a method of reading a book with the intent of pulling something useful out of it. It’s different from passively going over the text once to experience it.
Right off the bat, he says there were a lot of systems that have been put forward like SQ3R, SQ4R, and lots of other acronym driven systems for active reading, and he thinks that these systems are too cumbersome. They
take too long, and he is not the only one who thinks this.
Instead, he shows how to apply active reading to 3 specific books that he’s been reading recently, and how he’s able to recall the information better by doing that.
First, he gives you 5 general active reading tips that you can apply to any reading that you have to do.
- The first tip is to use a technique called pseudo-skimming. The longer the readings that you have to do are, the more likely a lot of the paragraphs in those readings are going to be filler. That could be background, that could be extra detail, it could be asides. Often you don’t really need to read these paragraphs all that in depth to get the information you need for your classes. The pseudo-skimming technique is really a paragraph by paragraph technique where you skim each paragraph very quickly, and then you get a feel for the reading and figure out which paragraphs hold the most important information.
- The second tip is to try to read backwards. A lot of textbooks are not all that exciting. They don’t really have a narrative, and you’re not going to spoil yourself if you read it backwards, or go to the end. If you want to figure out what a certain chapter is all about, you can first go to the back, look at summary, look at the vocab lists that are put back there, some of the questions, the review items, and get a feel for what
the actual chapter wants you to learn in a big sense, like a sky high sense. Once you get that you can start going backwards and seeing.
- Tip number 3 is to come up with questions while you read. When you are going through the chapter, if you are doing pseudo-skimming, or anything else, when something comes up that you don’t really know about, then note that down as a question. You can also use the headings, the sub-headings in the chapter as questions. If there’s a sub-heading that talks about a specific concept, you can re-word that as a question, maybe even right it down in your notes, and then as you go through the actual content of that section answer the question for yourself. You can do this in review as well.
- Tip number 4 is to pay attention to the formatting of a text. When he was in college he would do this
with almost all of his readings. He would open up the book, he would look at almost every single bolded item, or list of things, and he would pay special attention to those items in the text because they probably were to go over processes that are important to the chapter, or go over vocab terms that are almost certainly going to appear on tests. You should pay attention to things that stand out, and their formatting, and not those down.
- The last tip, before geting into some of the books is to either mark up the book while you’re reading. If you own the book, you can write in it with a pencil, and make notes in the margins, which is really helpful. If you don’t, you can use flags, or possibly highlight depending on your schools policies. If you really don’t want to mark up your book, then you can take really short bulleted notes on a piece of paper. You can also put questions in there, or you can take flow style notes.
He also shows a few of the books that he’s been reading, and 3 different active reading strategies that he adopted for each book.
“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman
This book is about cognitive biases. It’s about bugs in human reasoning, and rationality, and decision making. It’s a super dense book.
He used flags to markup almost every page that he has read. That is one of those books that’s packed with information on almost every single page. Every single chapter mention multiple studies with lots of results, defines different terms, and he was interested in almost everything he read. Therefore, as he went through, he used flags to markup the book in a non-damaging way.
He read this book about a year ago. He’s become a little bit more okay with marking up his books permanently since then, but the flag method does work, especially if you’re renting textbooks, or you plan on selling it later. You can pull them out when you need to when you have good notes for them, and you finished reviewing. It’s a pretty good method.
“Confessions of a Scholarship Winner” by Kristina Ellis
He’s going through this book because it’s a fantastic overview of how to win scholarships. This book he went through with a pencil and he would bracket paragraphs that held specific ideas he wanted to review later. He would write notes in the margin underlining specific terms that are really important.
As he’s looking back through the book, he saw all the spots that he wanted to note for later. He’s going to go through the book a second time once he finishes reading it, and take good notes on it.
“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg
Speaking of notes, it is the book he’s been reading most recently. He actually has a third active reading system which is working really well at this point, and it’s just to take notes on the chapter after reading it.
He’s created a habit of reading this “Power of Habit” book. He’s created a habit of reading this book every single day for at least 15 minutes. He checks it off in HabitRPG, and it’s something that’s becoming a very strong habit for him. He definitely does it every day. About once every 2 days he finishes a chapter. Immediately when he finishes reading a chapter, he’ll go over to Evernote on his desktop computer, go back through the chapter and write notes in Evernote. He’s got a good bulleted summary of almost the entire book right now. Everything that he thought was important in the book is in that summary, and it’s going to be about 3,000 words once he finishes it, he’s estimating. That’s a lot less than what’s in the book, and if he wants to go back and review what he learned it’s going to be much easier, and it’s in his own words as well.
Those are some of the strategies you can use for active reading. Hopefully, you can implement some of these into your studies in order to cut down on
that study time, and increase your recall and your ability to do better on tests, and essays, and whatever it is you need to apply your readings to.