Reading perceptively and carefully can help you assimilate the information better.

As students, there always seems to be too much to read. The syllabus is longer than it should be, and teachers seem to expect students to get through more pages in a week than there are minutes in a day.

Much of the material is infinitely boring and seemingly irrelevant. So we develop strategies to get through it with a finely honed sense of what is needed for the examination.

If we’re lucky enough to be using a well-thumbed second-hand copy of a textbook, we can read through what has been highlighted by previous users. (Of course, this means we also must trust that those who read before us had the good sense to highlight correctly!)

Some of us read only as much as we need to supplement the notes made in class. And yet others mark out portions that seem to answer questions from previous examination papers, and read just those bits.

Little wonder then, that we forget almost everything we read as soon as this primary purpose (to answer examination questions) is served.

Beyond exams

As we progress from school to college to higher degrees, reading serves purposes beyond the limited one of answering questions set by examiners. Reading is in many ways the essence of education — along with the ability to learn from seeing and doing.

Words on a page (or a screen) have the remarkable power to transport us across contexts and conditions and take us into spheres of experience that we cannot access in a material or physical sense.

It is because of this that students of chemistry have found excitement in the stories of Archimedes and Kekulé, and history buffs have relived the wars of the past.

But the problem is that not all material holds this excitement for all of us. Still, we need to be able to read both carefully and efficiently, if we are to really learn.

If we are interested in a subject, we will naturally spend more time on it and be more willing to spend time with our books.

However, we need to read materials that we may not be that interested in, and we need to do it in a way that allows us to not only answer exam questions but also retain information so that it can be used and applied in different ways.

Often we don’t realise the value of a particular piece of knowledge until much later, when it makes sense against something else we have learned. But this kind of realisation can happen only if we have read carefully — to understand rather than just to remember for a short while.

Reading is a complex activity, and I don’t mean to go into the details here. We all engage with written materials differently and in varying ways. When we read a novel as a leisure activity, we become involved in the lives of the characters and experience their highs and lows. When we read factual information, we actively try to commit it to memory.

When we read theory or argument we try to understand how things relate and fit together. Some things we skim over and others, we dive into.

In academic reading, too, there are some things we need to read quickly and “on the surface” and other pieces we need to spend time over and assimilate at a deeper level.

Spend enough time

The crucial decision that faces us when we look at that big pile of course-related reading, is — what do we dive into and what do we skim over?

Where is it sufficient to gain a general idea and where do we need to apply our minds so that the information becomes part of the way we understand and interpret the world?

Spending time reading deeply rather than superficially yields better results in the long term.

The content “takes residence” in your mind and gives you the ability to understand and connect bits of information from diverse sources. For example, if you have read your history carefully you are probably better at making an argument about current politics. Or if you have read your classics well, you would be better at using language effectively.

By and large, theoretical knowledge — about how things work and how they are related — requires deeper engagement, while information or facts can be acquired by reading at a more superficial level. The former requires us to spend time and think while reading, while the latter requires only memorisation.

In other words, you can’t memorise a theory, you have to understand it. But you can memorise something like the order of elements in the periodic table. On the other hand, if you’ve spent some time understanding something, you will also be more likely to remember it.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus, www.teacherplus.org.

Email: usha.raman@gmail.com