How to Retain What You Read

“Engineer Robert Heaton invented a three-step system for reading a book like a student. (And if you are a student, it might be better than your current habits.)

Take notes

Heaton suggests three kinds of note-taking:

  • Underline or highlight important or memorable passages
  • Add symbols to denote things like lines you’re skeptical about, or things you want to research further
  • Write thoughts in the margin, in complete sentences

These notes serve two purposes. Writing things down helps you remember them. But you’re also preparing for the second step: your book report.

Write a report

This step can take a couple of hours, so you don’t need to do it with every book—just the ones that you found yourself taking lots of notes on, or really appreciating what they taught.

Your report should summarize and restate what you learned from the book, and it should include your evaluation. You need to think critically about how well the book supported its thesis—it’s no good internalizing a lot of opinions or arguments from a book if you don’t think the author actually supported their statements.

Again, writing things down will help you retain the information right now. But it also gives you a cheet sheet to check back on, in Heaton’s third (and most optional) step.

Study your notes

A few weeks or months after reading the book, read your report. Heaton also recommends making flash cards to review, which seems more like a “sometimes food,” useful for books whose information you really will be tested on some day, when making life or workplace decisions.

You can pick and choose from Heaton’s methods. (And you can apply them to other reading, like long articles.) Personally, taking notes appeals to me much more than doing a writeup afterward, when I’m most excited to start a new book. But putting extra work into your reading will help you appreciate each book better—and help you make better decisions about what to read next.

How to Read | Robert Heaton”