Training and Certification

Become an Active Reader to Increase Learning Retention

February 16, 2016

Guest Author

Photo Credit: the researcher via www.CaronlineBach.com cc

What is active reading? This article answers this question and expands upon active reading best practices, active vs passive reading, the debate surrounding active reading mediums (paper/pen and computers).

This article is one of several examining various learning and study methods. Now pick up a pen or pencil, print this page, and start learning about becoming an active reader.

What is Active Reading?

Active reading, as described by Tashman and Edwards, “involves searching, highlighting, comparison, non-sequential navigation, and the like” while reading. The latter states that active reading is “characterized by the greater demand [placed] on the reader”. The benefits of active reading are not up for debate. This method, often not advocated by my teachers during elementary or secondary education, encourages the reader to engage the text.

Once I learned how to actively read (AR) with at least a pen or pencil in hand, the act of reading no longer became a burden for remembering information.

Tips for Active Reading

The McGraw Center provides excellent active reading practices. The list includes:

  • Ask Yourself Pre-Reading Questions
  • Identify and Define Unfamiliar Terms
  • Brack Main Ideas or Thesis of Reading
  • Make Marginal Notes or Comments Instead of Using a Highlighter
  • Write Questions in Margins and Answer Later
  • Create Outlines, Flow Charts, Diagrams to Map and Understand Ideas Visually
  • Determine What Paragraphs Say and Explain it in One Sentence in your own words
  • Write Summaries of Chapters in Your Own Words
  • Teach What You Learned To Another Person

Not every person has the time required to apply all of these active reading practices. But the list helps you to see what the AR encompasses. The tools for developing active reading habits do not stick immediately. I find that the best tools and tips for increasing my active reading and learning retention skills come from early educational teaching instruction. For example, this blog post on developing active readers by Rebecca Alber elucidates how even children who are first learning to read can be equip with the right mindset for active reading. Like the children, teach yourself to not give into the easy impulse decision to passively read. The “just read” approach produces mixed and often poor results.

The Case for Active Over Passive Reading

Despite this advice and my advocacy, along with researchers referenced above, you and others, including myself, don’t necessarily feel as if we have the time to actively read. We need realistic and timely cliff note versions of information. The evolution of the search engine revolutionized the distribution of information. Therefore, we crave speed and instant answers. Unfortunately this doesn’t always lead to effective learning.

There is a time for active and passive reading. For example, my friend loves reading racy novels for leisure. She says mindless reading helps her relax after hours of hard work. This is a perfectly acceptable reason for passive reading. This type of reading seems more engaging compared to passively watching television.

But you should know when and how to discern between the two types of reading. In graduate school, undergrad, even an IT training class, don’t resort to passive reading habits. You can, but you’ll most likely retain less information.

Is Paper Losing Ground to Computers for Active Reading?

Is the pen and paper approach falling out of favor for active readers? I hate to ask this question, but it’s reasonable since technology continues to push forward advancements focused on saving time, increasing efficiency, and enabling a better visually acceptable approaches for learning. Also, the speed in which we absorb information increased significantly over the last decade. We don’t necessarily have sufficient patience to write, highlight, create sticky note bookmarks, and flip back and forth between notes and book pages. We don’t have time. We don’t want to continue killing trees.

In the research conducted by Tashman and Edwards, they observed that “computers are now a more common AR medium than paper”. They list several advantages and disadvantages for each medium.

The pros for computer AR:

  • Better Note Organization: Study participants claim that performing AR and note taking becomes “more codified” on the PC. Notes are easy to read, find, review, and well organized.
  • Extra Space Beyond the Margins: People complained about the lack of space for annotations along page margins and the apparent disconnect between the source (book or article) and notepad.
  • Save Pens/Pencils and Paper: Save the rain forest, carry less books and notepads, and no need for accessories such as pens, pencils, highlighters, sticky notes, bookmarks. Research points to the popular consensus on how people dislike carrying extra books and accessories.
  • No Overdue Library Fines: With library books, you cannot write in the margins. Then you must manage this disconnect between hand written notes, where the notes correspond to page numbers, without altering the physical appearance of the book. Also, when loaning ebooks, you do not deal with library fines. Automatically renew or return books online.
  • Efficiency over Handwritten Notes: Unless you’re a terrible typist with a dreadful WPM (words per minute), hand written notes take longer. The process of writing notes may resonate better with you, but efficiency decreases.
  • Copy/Paste and Drag/Drop: AR with paper doesn’t permit the copying/pasting or dragging/dropping notes and text. This pro hits on the same efficiency advantage for computers.
  • Audio Notes: Not a fan of typing and don’t prefer paper? Audio notes provide a suitable replacement for each alternative. When you elucidate concepts and terms, elaborate on important quotes through verbal notes, this adequately replaces personalized hand written notes. Dictation is not only suitable for lawyers who are terrible typists.

The cons for computer AR:

  • Less Impactful Physical Engagement: The uniqueness of physically writing in page margins, creating bookmarks on pages, writing notes while reading (even on a separate notepad from books), creates a more impactful impression for active readers. You remember more info when taking the time to write notes in your own words.
  • No Extra Device to Buy: Your life revolves around new devices. You need a new smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop PC, GoPro, and anything worthy of your wallet. The cost of pens, pencils, marble notebooks, highlighters, sticky notes, may fall far below the cost of computing devices used for AR. How do you compare the two costs? Does it matter much? Or do you support the argument that the investment in an AR capable device with corresponding technology outweighs the accumulation of notebooks?
  • Too Much Screen Time: Between work, home, and school, you spend the majority of your day in front of a computer or television screen. The respite relieves the brain and eyes. If the computer stains your eyes too much, then paper may serve you better.
  • Distractions Aplenty (easy access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, (insert favorite websites): Do you remember the last time you turned on a computer and didn’t do an activity outside of the web browser? The rise in cloud computing and SaaS forces you to depend on web browsers for everything. If you’re anything like me, paper eliminates this major distraction.
  • Poor Document Navigation: The average end-user doesn’t have a strong grasp on document/window navigation and management. They aren’t proficient at splitting windows and jumping between workspace. I relied on an extra monitor until discovering Linux. Computers cannot replace the advantages of physically spreading papers out on a desk to observe notes. As the study referenced above points out, “paper’s spatial flexibility [is] important to readers”. Active reading is “non-linear” because individuals do not consume one page and move on. They return to pages, take notes, create bookmarks, and they need to organize information in a visual format easy for them to digest. This proves difficult with computers.

Not all people have grown to accept and prefer technology over the traditional approach. This guy earned a CS degree with pen and paper. I’m a supporter of the pen and paper learning approach too. Recent research supports the long form hand written notes approach over typing notes.

I type faster, but learn better with hand written notes. Stick to what’s best for you. 

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