Proven Techniques for Remembering


How can you retain more information? What are the most effective techniques for remembering information? After all, what’s the point of learning if it’s not there for you when you need it. In Little Guide To Your Well-Read Life: How To Get More Books In Your Life And More Life From Your Books, Steve Leveen writes about proven practices for remembering information.

SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recite and Review
Leveen writes:

“In the 1940’s Francis Robinson, a professor of Ohio State University, came up with something of a breakthrough for learning college course material. It is an eminently practical method based on psychological research that he called SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review. The idea is to survey each section of a textbook, starting out high and coming in lower for successive passes. Key to this method is transforming the textbook’s subheadings into questions. ‘Naturalistic Substage’ becomes ‘What Is Naturalistic Substage?’ Then read to answer the questions, practice reciting the answers without looking at the text, and after short breaks, review what you’ve learned.”

Prompting Questions
Leveen writes:

“At about the same time that Robinson was developing his method, a scholar named Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, who had studied and lectured at the Sorbonne, came up with his own, similar method for extracting the most from texts. In The Art of Study: The Sorbonne Method, Szekely recommends that you underline key passages on the page of the text, rite pithy summaries of these points in the right margin, and then write your own questions that these points answer in the left margin. Use the top margin for your own ideas and the bottom margin for things you don’t understand. By covering up all but your prompting questions on the left, you can practice your recitation. Later, your notes at the bottom about the points that were unclear may become your most valuable notes of all. ‘In this way ou become your own examining professor and your own judge,’ says Szekely.”

Cornell System: The Question-in-the-Margin Method
Leveen writes:

“Current college-level recommendations carry on the same basic idea: to learn most efficiently, you need to become your own instructor. Walter Pauk is the creator of the Cornell System for taking notes. With this method, students leave a wide left-hand margin for the questions they ask themselves after class or after reading, which their notes answer. Students then cover up the answers until they can recite them. In the seventh edition of his How to Study in College, Pauk still recommends his question-in-the-margin method for twenty-first-century students.”

Frame Questions
Leveen writes:

“Whatever you wish to remember after finishing the book, it will help if you frame questions that will elicit these facts and ideas. Returning to Panama, for example, I asked myself: ‘What was the startling, counterproductive practice hospitals were following for their malaria patients?’ Answer: ‘Putting bedposts in pans of water to keep ants away — meanwhile breeding mosquitoes in hospital wards.’ This is a proven way to seize the most from your reading.”

Recite Soon After Learning
Leveen writes:

“After learning something, how best can we retain the information for the long term? The college study books pay lots of attention to this question, and one overriding lesson is to recite soon after learning something and then repeatedly, at lengthening intervals, as often as you need. Usually it takes surprisingly little time to do this, and you can retain an impressive amount of information for years to come.”

Refresh Your Memory Quickly
Leveen writes:

“College texts still refer to the pioneering work in memory that Hermann Ebbinghaus did in the late nineteenth century. A German psychologist, Ebbinghaus discovered that most memory loss occurs very soon after learning something. The best way to counteract this natural loss is to refresh your memory quickly — for example, later in the same day. Then refresh by recitation the next day, then perhaps a few days later, a week after that, and again at three weeks. These reviews, which may take only minutes, will yield surprisingly good results for your long-term retention. While this technique applies mainly to textbook and nonfiction learning, there’s no reason you can’t use it to remember the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird if you wish.”

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • Chunk it down. Our working memory can only hold so much at a time and it fatigues fairly quickly. Chunking down information makes it easier to absorb. When I blog, I chunk information down and this helps me absorb and retain more.
  • Ask questions. Questions engage your mind. Similar to driving a bunch of miles and not even noticing, it’s easy to read a bunch of information passively and walk away with nothing. If you ask questions, you’ll notice the landmarks, insights, and “ah-has” along the way.
  • Improve your questions. Thinking is just asking and answering questions. If you ask better questions, you’ll get better answers. The answers will also stick better since you’re using a question-driven approach and you’re engaging your mind.
  • Write it down. The act of writing it down also engages your mind. You need to think about what you’re going to write, so when you write your notes, you’re transforming the information with your mind engaged.
  • Revisit the information. I make a habit of scanning my notes, asking questions and finding the answers. This helps remind me of important things, while the unimportant stuff just sloughs off.
  • Turn insights into action. The most important thing you can do is turn what you learn into something you can use. Always ask yourself, “How can I use this?” You may be surprised by your own answers.


  1. Ha! Simple and genius!!
    Asking questions sounds really practical. I was using associations technique to remember things. Asking questions seems much more practical and more contextual!!


  2. I find question-driven remembering extremely effective. It carries over to other areas (I use it for mentoring, driving meetings, creating, writing, .. etc.) As an added bonus, the fact that I can use it every day across multiple areas means I get daily practice and improve over time.

    Association technques certainly work, but they require more work and practice to get good. If you need to study for a bunch of tests or recall a bunch of facts and figures on your feet, I would work on them. Otherwise, for day to day learning and action, questions are a great tool.

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