Whether you’re studying for an exam or just to learn more and develop your personal or professional skills, you have to wrestle with a simple fact:

You won’t remember much of what you’ve read.

It’s a bit of a frustrating fact, isn’t it? To know that you’re reading to learn, but you can only absorb a certain portion of what you’re reading? That you’re doomed to forget much of the useful information between the covers of that incredible book you’re blazing through?

Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

There are all kinds of tricks out there to help you read faster, but what about helping you remember more of what you read, so you can absorb more of the knowledge you’re feeding your brain?

Using something learning expert Scott H. Young calls the “Question Book Method” you can do exactly that — measurably increasing your ability to recall anything you’ve read.

Recognition vs. Recall: What’s the difference?

Before diving in, it’s important to understand that there are two types of memory:

  • Recognition
  • Recall

Recognition is used to identify things. It’s what you use when you see something you know (“cup”, “key”, “computer”, “words”). It helps us navigate our daily life, without which we’d be utterly lost and confused.

Recall is what we use when we need to know the answer to something. It’s more about filling in blank — I need to take my computer to the guy Jen suggested… what was their name? or Where did I leave my keys? It’s more about storing important information so that we can pull it back up later when we need it.

This is important to understand because memory isn’t a single process but actually a collection of different processes that work very different from one another to accomplish one goal.

By understanding how each works you can utilize each to maximize your ability to retain more of the information you read.

But while recognition is what you’re using most often when you read a text — recognizing the words themselves or the concepts the writer has included in the story or discussion– it’s recall that will help you most of all in an effort to remember more of what you read.

That’s where this simple trick comes in.

A simple trick to remember anything you’ve read

Remember how recall helps you bring up information when you need it, often to answer a question or fill in some information you need to perform a task? That’s the very key to this trick.

The trick is deceptively simple but incredibly effective:

Write down notes. Not basic “X works like this” but notes based on a question which the text answers.

Here’s an example:

If you’re reading a book on finances and they tell you to save 10% of your income while saving an additional 50% every raise you receive thereafter, frame the note like this:

How much is the average person recommended to save?

10% of their income.

How much is the average person recommended to save from future raises?

50% of that raise.

Go back and quiz yourself

Once you’ve finished a text and written down all relevant questions for it, go back and quiz yourself on those questions to further cement that information in your recallable memory.

This is easy if you make sure to leave a post-it note or something similar in the pages where you’ve taken down notes and mark the post-it with the question so you can quickly come back to it later.  

By framing the information you’d like to take from the book as questions, no matter what the text is about, and then quizzing yourself on that information, you’ll be far more likely to “download” that information where you can recall it in the future.

Clearly, you can’t go using this for every bit of information in a book. However, it’s highly useful for the most important notes.

Typically, I end up with about a page of notes on the average non-fiction book I read, which is a reasonable amount of information to do this exercise with. However, you can always do more if you’re using it for a school textbook or something similar, potentially doing a page for each chapter as you move through the book.


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