How To Retain What You Read
RETENTION IS NOT THE PROBLEM
The problem here is often not retention at all, but recall. We remember a great
deal more than we realise. You must have had the experience of being asked for
some information, the name of a person, say, and not being able to think of it, but as soon as someone else mentions the name you say, ‘Of course, that’s it.’ This response indicates that the information was indeed available, but for some reason it was not accessible.
Our brains are capable of storing vast amounts of information about all manner of
subjects, experiences, feelings and so on. Many older people, for example, can
recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. Younger ones can remember the events of the hurricane in the south of England on 16 October 1987. You will have your own memories of significant events in your own life. My simply making the point may well have brought images not thought of for some time flooding back into your consciousness.
IMPROVING RETENTION: QUALITIES OF INFORMATION
Even though retention is not really the problem, there are still ways in which it
can be improved. There are certain qualities that information needs to possess if
we are to retain it more effectively. Many of them are based on simple common
It helps to remember something if it possesses a degree of meaningfulness for us. It needs to have relevance. We do, of course, all remember a lot of useless information, which is handy for pub quizzes or playing Trivial Pursuit, but we remember much more that is useful. We should, therefore, first of all be clear about what the information means to us and how we shall use it.
Information is easier to remember if it has a pattern of organisation, a structure.
Often, because writers like to present things in a logical and ordered way, this
pattern is easy to see. If it is not, we should look for a way of organising it
ourselves. Mind mapping can be very useful as an intermediate step between
material presented in a haphazard fashion and a point-by-point plan. Once similar items are grouped together on the mind map, all we then have to do is look for a sequence which suits us.
We should look for easy to remember associations between what we want to
remember and what we readily remember already. These associations can then be linked together to produce patterns. Many people remember shopping lists like this. They know the layout of their local supermarket and can split it into areas. Their requirements can then be arranged to provide associations with those areas. They then produce a pattern of moving through the store which minimises the need to return to the same area more than once on a visit. If the supermarket reorganises its floor space, the process is simply repeated to suit the new pattern.
Visualisataions help us to remember things. If we can see them in our mind’s eye and provide ourselves with a series of pictures it strengthens the impression made by the information. Even abstract concepts can be visualised. Democracy may be seen as a ballot being placed in a ballot box. Justice is often seen as a pair of scales.
Often we fail to remember because we have not been paying enough attention. We have not tried to remember. Effective retention does require a certain amount of concentration, though not so much that it causes us to frown with the effort. All that does is give you a pain between the eyes. The simplest way to deal with this point is, when you need to pay attention and concentrate, select a time and a place where you know from experience it is easier to achieve it. Most people find mornings better for tasks requiring concentration and conditions of relative quiet Libraries or interview rooms without external windows are usually the most readily available locations
A high level of interest in the subject matter and a strong motivation for remembering it help. This cannot always be achieved, but where it can we should exploit it to the full. Even uninteresting topics can be made easier to remember with motivation. Identify a clear reason for remembering.
Feedback is important. We need to check that we have indeed remembered what we want to remember.