Reading, Writing, and The Den

Disclaimer: This is a bit long, but contains good resources.

During yesterday’s edition of the Den (embedded below), students talked about the challenges they have experienced transitioning from traditional classrooms and books to their own learning spaces and digital content. In particular, that reading from a screen does not result in the same understanding as a physical book. The intent of the rest of this post is to provide resources and suggestions for making reading more memorable and useful.

Mark Important Information. Some of the best advice is to mark or annotate reading (whether on a screen or on paper), making the most important parts more visible, and then to review those parts after reading, and write about them in a notebook, which can serve as an external memory device. See: Make it Stick, and this list of adapted strategies for memory tools.

This can be done using boxes around key paragraphs, notes and questions in the margins, circled or underlined words and other markings of your own invention. Of this practice, Mortimer Adler, in How to Mark a Book, suggests that,

If reading is to accomplish anything more than passing time, it must be active. You can’t let your eyes glide across the lines of a book and come up with an understanding of what you have read. You don’t absorb the ideas of John Dewey the way you absorb the crooning of Mr. Vallee. You have to reach for them. That you cannot do while you’re asleep.

Adler, How to Mark a Book, 1940

Writing to Learn. At the most basic level, there has to be intent in reading, and one way of making reading intentional, is to either mark it up and structure it in a notebook or on scratch paper. Adler, like many others after him, including researchers, have found the act of writing notes, rather than typing them, makes it more likely you will remember the information later for an assignment, test, or project:

Well, the physical act of writing, with your own hand, brings words and sentences more sharply before your mind and preserves them better in your memory. To set down your reaction to important words and sentences you have read, and the questions they have raised in your mind, is to preserve those reactions and sharpen those questions.

Adler, How to Mark a Book, 1940

Structuring Newfound Knowledge. Finally, after having read and marked the text, it is best to structure the most important points so they are memorable, and this requires imposing your own structure on the information. One way to do this is by following the Classical method, which is outlined in the first few chapters of Susan Wise Bauer’s book, The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to The Classical Education You Never Had.

There are three primary stages to taking notes on reading in Bauer’s method:

  • Grammar Stage: write a one to two sentence summary of each section of the reading.
  • Logic Stage: After writing your one to two line summaries, create your own table of contents of the major ideas in the reading.
  • Rhetoric Stage: Write briefly about how the ideas in the reading relate to or are connected to your prior knowledge.

The first two stages provide a good reference for studying for a test or working on a larger assignment or project, and the third stage makes it more likely you will be able to remember the information long after you have finished reading about it.

And, as promised, The Den, from Tuesday, April 7th:

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