Read, Reread, Forget

by Tina Blue
November 10, 2002

          This past week, as I read through my students' essays on why they have so much trouble keeping up with their college reading assignments, I was struck by how often they complained about not remembering what they had just read unless they read it again, sometimes even more than once.

          I think they have a rather starry-eyed notion of how most people read to learn. Probably their unrealistic expectations derive from never having had to do much reading--and especially not much difficult reading--in high school or middle school. The teachers predigested the textbook material for them and presented it in highly simplified lectures. Then they gave out study guides that highlighted key points, so the students would know what they needed to study for the tests.

          One consequence of such a practice is that the amount of material that can be covered is drastically reduced, because you really can't teach that much material in a 45-minute lecture. And of course it is also simplified, because the aspects of the subject that are most complex or subtle, most difficult to understand or teach, must be lopped off, like Cinderella's sisters' toes and heels, to fit into that tiny glass slipper of a lecture period. Thus, the students' comprehension of the course's subject matter remains limited and doesn't get much past the introductory level.

          Having been spoonfed such simplified pabulum, the students are then taken back over the same material with review sessions, lecture notes, and study guides. In essence, though they don't realize it, they are "reading" the same (rather simple) material twice or more, even if they never read it once in the textbook. And if the student reviews his lecture notes and the study guide, he will be "reading" the material again each time he does so.

          And yet when such a student first tries to read a chapter out of a college textbook, he is surprised that he does not immediately understand it, or that even if he does understand it, he can't remember it all that well once he is done reading.

          But the textbook material has not been reduced, simplified, and predigested by his teacher, so none of the hard stuff has been left out. There is more material to cover, and much of it is harder than what he was expected to learn in high school, so it requires slower, more painstaking
reading--and thus much more time to complete it. And often the lecture covers other material, not what is in the textbook, so he doesn't get the benefit of having it reviewed during class. Any review must be accomplished on his own.

          When the student tries to read his text but doesn't immediately understand it, his natural impulse will be to give up. He has had little in the way of past experience to reassure him that it is possible to get past such initial incomprehension. When he does understand but still can't remember an hour later what it was he just read, then he assumes there is no point in even trying to do the reading assignment, since he won't remember any of it anyway.

          I wonder whether these students would be comforted to know that virtually all readers are unable to recall what they have just read unless the reading was about something they were already comfortably familiar with. Take me, for example. I am a skilled, avid reader. I read more in one week than most people read in a lifetime, and I read widely (and often deeply) in a wide range of subjects. That means that when I pick up a book or article, there's a good chance that I will not be coming brand-new to the subject.

          But sometimes I am new to a subject, and when I am, I have to read much more slowly and carefully, often stopping to figure out the meaning of what I have just read. And unless I review important points after completing the reading, then within just a couple of hours I will forget most of what I have read. Even if I do review it and thus retain it for a while longer, I will eventually forget it anyway, unless I have reason to use it again or to return for another review. Ask me about it a month or two later, and maybe I will be able to offer a vague, general idea of what I read, but that's about all I would be able to come up with.

          I read a lot in science, for example, but I never use that stuff. As I read about some scientific subject for the first time, I often have to stop to work out meanings. And eventually, most of what I learn, except for general outlines, will just fall out of my head. If I read about the same subject, say, a year later, the newer reading will be easier to understand because of my past comprehension of the subject, so I will be able to read a bit more quickly--though still not at the rate I would read in a subject more familiar to me. But unless I have reason to make use of the information, it will still degenerate from knowledge to mere vague impressions as time passes.

          Hey, even in subjects I know, I have to reread if I am not regularly using the material. For example, I often tutor in Western Civ, and the required readings stay pretty much the same from year to year. Yet every semester I must reread each text before I can tutor it, even if I tutored the course in the preceding semester. Because I don't use those texts except when I am tutoring them, I don't retain the details I need to teach them properly. My past familiarity with the texts means that I can go through them very quickly, without stopping to work out what they mean, but I still have to reread them in order to remember them well enough to tutor them. On the other hand, I remember easily, with no need for any review, those subjects that I am always working with, either teaching them or writing about them.

          Since the material they were required to master in high school was not very extensive or very complex, our new college students are surprised, almost traumatized, at the sheer density of the subject matter they are expected to assimilate in many of their college courses. And when they can't remember what they've read, they assume that something must be terribly wrong with their ability to learn and that they might as well just give up on ever mastering the material. But if they knew we all have to read and reread, and that we all forget what we read unless we review it (that's called studying) or use it so frequently that we are in a sense constantly reviewing it, then they might be more willing to keep plugging away at those readings.

          Being required to do the impossible produces despair, and despair can't motivate anyone. But if a student knows a task, however difficult, really is not impossible, then he might well find in himself the energy and determination to tackle it after all.

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