How to Digest Books to Improve Recall

information recall learningIf you read a lot of books or blog posts, listen to sermons, or even watch documentaries, you are exposed to a lot of information. But whether you are learning a lot of  information is another matter.

While the mental click of processing a new item of information feels great, we often find ourselves unable to remember simple facts or ideas in the days after we learn them. It’s frustrating to just remember that you learned something relevant to the problem you’re working on, but not be able to actually recall what that helpful info is. This happens with actor’s names and book titles all the time.

Lately, I’ve amped up the amount of non-fiction I’m reading. While information consumption is something that lights my brain up and registers as an accomplishment, I’m really interested in trying to improve my ability to recall my new reading.

If you invest 10 hours of reading into a 200-page book (or 40 minutes into hearing a lecture), you don’t get that time back.

One way to maximize that 10-hour investment is to improve your recall. Better memory also improves the chance you’ll recall the information when you need it to make key decisions–and making better decisions with new information is the best kind of return on investment.

So how do you improve recall?

What Doesn’t Work (probably)

Somewhere in the middle years of my education I was taught that the way most people learn things is largely ineffective.

The idea goes like this (typically attributed to William Glassser):

We only remember:
10% of what we READ
20% of what we HEAR
30% of what we SEE
50% of what we SEE and HEAR
70% of what is DISCUSSED with OTHERS
95% of what we TEACH TO SOMEONE ELSE.

Whether or not this is true, it strikes me as fundamentally right on some level. It’s the idea of active recall: the greater your active engagement, the better your recall.

Many common studying practices, like highlighting, are largely a waste of time according to some sources. I suspect that only holds true if you passively highlight, meaning never return to those sections. Highlighting and underlining (as well as simple rereading) can promote false confidence, because the “click” of passive rereading might be misconstrued as true understanding, without actually improving recall.

In other words, the higher rung you climb on the ladder of engagement, the better your recall. 

Your Brain is a Network

Active recall matches with our understanding of how the brain encodes things.

Your brain doesn’t just store information in little cordoned brain boxes. Information spreads out across networks of neurons throughout the brain. The more you engage with an idea, the more the densely that idea is represented in your brain, as it connects to other ideas. Effectively, when your brain exercises an idea that idea becomes more muscular.

This is why you remember new acquaintances’ names better if they have the same name as your sibling–the network of associations for that name is already dense. It also explains why it’s so difficult to remember foreign names: you don’t have existing networks for those names, and often don’t even have strong patterns for those combinations of sounds, so your brain has to work harder to recall them.

Learning actively forces you to build more neural connections for new ideas. If you do a relevant science experiment instead of just reading about a new concept, you create a whole bunch of sensory experiences and associations that strengthen your recall. If you teach a concept, you’re forced to recall the idea and then communicate it, probably in a format you didn’t receive it in the first place.

Actively Digest Books

Here are three ways I’m trying to digest my non-fiction reading to improve my return on the time invested:

  • Read comprehensively. Read in topics that interrelate, instead of reading scattered subjects. For me right now, that means a lot about business, nonprofits, psychology and persuasion. Often, you’ll run into the same case studies from a different light, which reinforces your learning. Try to take time to integrate new knowledge with your old understanding. All this strengthens your neural connections.
  • Create a quote bank. Stick tabs into the text when a thought strikes you as especially important or profound to the overall message, and worth being able to remember later (if you aren’t as old fashioned as I am, use whatever the e-book analogue is to tabbing a page). Then, once you’ve finished the book, go back through the tabs and decide if they still seem as important–they might not! If they do, though, type them into a quote bank in Google Docs (so you can access them wherever) to increase your engagement. Then go back in the coming weeks and review the quotes in the quote bank to reinforce your new connections. (A quote bank will also help you be more willing to get rid of old books.)
  • Write/Teach.  Use the above points to create a new thing that integrates your knowledge. I write and blog in my work life, so I have an organic opportunity to teach and process new information in creative ways. This allows you to get an immediate return value from your reading things, in addition to improving your long-term recall–since you have to have pretty high engagement to articulate new knowledge to others in a different way than you consumed it. This blog post is an example of writing to improve recall.

What  ways do you  improve your recall of important information–whether it’s blog posts or sermons–instead of just consuming it and crossing your fingers? I’d love any suggestions.

[Image source: Inclued]



  1. Michael

    Oh, I think you’ve hit the Marc…

    Yeah, I went there, buddy.
    But really, I think you hit the psychology behind it very well – at least going off of what I know of psychology. My brother teaches psych and Nicole studied it, so I get drippings and table scraps of psychology-talk from time to time.

    Since I’ve started teaching a few months ago, I’ve become much more in-tune to what I’m teaching (As we’d hope an educator would be) but the point is, the old saying “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” has a lot of merit. It’s just the way our brain works. You illustrated that very well.

    I ‘spose I don’t have any profound insights for you today, Marc, but I would like to throw it out there that writing (not typing) helps me more. You mentioned creating quote banks. I think that’s a great way, but I think it is necessary to point out that you physically tabbed out your books and (I imagine) highlighted the portion on the page. I find that writing in a journal, whether it be for personal thought dumps or for story ideas, writing them down helps me recall them better than typing them. It’s the whole kinesthetic aspect of it, like you mentioned performing a relevant experiement, using our senses.

    Just when I thought I’ve written enough, I thought of another blip of whatever you want to call it.

    I’ve noticed that my short term memory feels less sharp now than it was during college…and I’ve only been graduated for less than a year. This terrifies me. My long term memory is elephant-like, but my short term seems to have gone downt he toilet. I think our environment and level of activity plays a large role in our ability to remember things. My memory has gotten better the more active I’ve become – less couch time, more teaching hours = better memory. Less napping, more ‘stuff to do’ = better memory. Now I don’t want it to sound like I was a lazy bum, because I spent a majority of my time reading or writing when I was getting fewer hours. I have no scientific basis, but I speculate that with more ‘stuff’ going on in our lives, our brain is engaged more. Not that reading all afternoon requries no brain involvement, but I guess it leaves fewer things for our brain to prioritize and consequently – remember.

    • Marc Koenig

      If actually writing quotes helps you remember better, that’s great! Do it.

      Personally, the act of recording quotes w/a pen vs. typing them out doesn’t noticeably improve my recall (I’ve tried both–I started out writing them out longhand because the idea was more romantic). But importantly, I found it DOES have a few negative side effects for me, psychologically. I am more reluctant to record quotes because my hand doesn’t take very long to get sore writing out long sections of quotes. I’m more likely to choose not to quote-bank the quotes I do highlight because the time investment is greater. Finally, it’s easier/more natural for me to compulsively review a Google Doc anywhere than it is to review a journal–and I can’t misplace it.

      I like your thoughts on short-term memory being sharper when you’re more mentally engaged in life in general. Thanks for your post!

      • Michael

        Oh yeah that makes a lot of sense. I would agree with the pen/paper method being more romantic, but it is less convenient these days.

        To be honest, I tend to have a crummy memory with quotes regardless if I type them or write them out long-hand. I’ve always been this way. I’ve tried to remember scripture, but usually fail at that. I always know the gist of things, but direct quotations are tough for me. I remember starting a vocabulary list when I was living in the 1016 with you and had it typed out in a word doc…I just revisited it last night and added a couple of words, but ya know…I still have trouble remembering. I might have to try the old fashioned, down and dirty review/memorize/repeat method.

        Yet when it comes to music…I can listen to a CD that I haven’t listened to in years and I will remember specific drum patterns or guitar parts before they happen. I’ll remember the most seemingly random placed bell hit or china cymbal or guitar squeal…or ya know when you listen to an album and just as one song is getting over, you know exactly how the next will start before it starts? An intro riff or drum pattern…perhaps it is just the repitition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s