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Textbook Zombie: Reading To Retain vs. Reading For Gist

Written by Christine Rees

We all thought we had too much homework back in high school, didn’t we? And then university smacks us with their zombifying reading lists and excruciating workload. Textbook Zombies really exist during exam time. Each of us struggles to absorb the material we’re rereading with a fourth or fifth cup of coffee in hand, even though our bed keeps calling us to sleep.

Here’s how we can help! If you’re reading to retain your weekly readings, you’ll only need to read for the gist when it’s time for exams. Ready to learn the difference?

Reading to Retain

three people reading on a wooden table
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

The best approach for reading to retain information is to create a plan. Develop a method for recording, reflecting on, and benefiting from the conclusions discovered from the material.

Stay Calm: Make everything easier for yourself. Try not to worry about your other homework. You won’t remember anything that way. So, sit in your favourite spot, have a tea or coffee, and prepare to dive into the subject. Don’t allow your stress to win and get the best of you.

Actively Read: Passive readers can read a lot without absorbing the information; they forget it as quickly as they read it. Speed reading doesn’t help either, so don’t rush through the pages. By the end, you may have done the reading but do you remember any of it? If you read through the material at your own pace, without trying to rush it, you’re more likely to remember the material.

Focus: Our minds can wander. Try not to let yours go too far when you’re completing school readings. No quick social media checks or cell phones. Don’t get lost in thought by staring at the ceiling unless you’re reflecting on the dense, complex information you are trying to remember. Reading to retain is all about maintaining your focus where it counts—in your book.

Take Notes: Whether you are writing in your textbook’s columns or taking side notes in a notebook, write out your questions and important facts. They can help you remember the material when you’re reviewing later. Make sure your notes are easily searchable so you don’t stress over finding them.

Highlight: What’s important here? Make that sentence stand out. You probably don’t need to retain the entire chapter; however, picking out points that will be covered, or have already been covered in class, will save you time later on. They’re likely to show up on the final exam, so make your first run-through count.

Take Breaks: A general rule is, if you’re getting bored, take a break. You won’t remember anything if you’re only thinking about how much you would rather be doing anything else. Remember that this is meant to be a short break.

Summary: Consider writing a short summary of the chapter. It doesn’t have to be long, but it can provide the gist of what you learned. This way, you won’t be forced to pick through every single page for a basic understanding of the material. Your future self will thank you.

Reading for the Gist

reading with a tea on a yellow blanket
Photo by Emily Rudolph on Unsplash

Exam times are stressful enough without adding to it. If you’ve already read to retain the weekly readings, then the information is likely in your brain somewhere. Reading for the gist of that information may be beneficial, and a little less stressful, when you’re preparing for the test.

Systematic Skimming: Start by skimming over the content page and preface for a basic review of the information. Scan the table of contents as a reminder of the topics you will be covering.

Superficial Reading: Just read. Don’t take notes or ponder for too long; you did a lot of that when you read for retention. Now, you know this information so you can skim through it, but don’t forget, you need to read actively in order to re-absorb every word!

Reread: Sometimes we miss important details the first time we skim through a chapter. It’s always a good idea to reread important sections to cement in what you’ve learned.

Both tactics help you absorb information in different ways. The complexity and number of readings you have will guide you towards the best method for your course. In my experience, both tactics work together to help you fully remember the material. If you need a little help getting started, check out Motivational Tips To Keep Studying.

What are you waiting for? Get reading!


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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.