How to retain and recall what you read

Follow these three steps to remember what you’ve read or learned.

By Syed Peeran, Ph.D., PE, Boston May 23, 2019

Human memory is very volatile, perhaps as volatile and impermanent as computer memory. Something absorbed by the mind years ago appears to fade and eventually dissipate with the years — or something else happens to make it difficult for you to recall it. There is probably a finite storage space in the human mind. When data are being pushed into it incessantly every waking hour, something must give.  

Very recently, someone asked me to design a grounding transformer, something I had done 100 times 10 years ago. It was something I sometimes did on the back of an envelope, but  this time I drew a blankI had to go back to the basics and refer to a handbook.  

Most of what engineers read in technical publications in print and online is loaded with numbers, details and explanations. There are also innumerable graphs, tables and photographs. It is no wonder that these details are difficult to recall later 

Here are three suggestions to help you retain and recall what you read. 

Step 1: Teach 

There is some truth to the adage that the best way to learn a subject is to teach itIf the article or paper you have read is of common interest to your colleagues, offer to give a lunchtime seminar. When you teach, you automatically address the whys and hows to make sense to your listenersYou also will face a barrage of questions from your colleagues, and comments from your seniors. This is great for etching the topic into your memory 

If their travels, site visits and other engagements make it difficult for your group to meet for a lunchtime seminar, try to discuss the article with your immediate colleagues who work in the same area as youThis discussion is very likely to benefit you and your colleagues equally.  

Alternately, imagine that you have been invited to deliver a talk in your local chapter of an association. You can then prepare an outline of what you would say and put it down on paper.  

Step 2Record 

An expert is not necessarily someone who has the answers, but is often someone who knows where to find the answers. Maintain a notebook or create a folder in your computer to enter the topic, the author, the title of the article, the name of the publication, the page numbers and the date of publication of the article you have read or webinar that you have attended. Select a suitable format for entering this information such that it is easy to retrieve.  

Copy or print an article that you have found interesting and place it in a binder. In time, the binder will grow in thickness and you may need to open more binders. Alternatively, put a soft copy or PDF of the article or online presentation in a folder on your computer.  

Search engines instantly give you a list of many resources on any topic you choose. But your notebook of references and your binders or folder are often more convenient than the search engines.  

Step 3Write 

Writing has the same benefits as teaching, except that there is no audience to give you feedback. However, writing helps you concentrate and put down your summary in your own words. This is an invaluable way of getting the most of the article you read or education session you attended 

Write at least a paragraph and save it with the article in your binder or folder. Include hand-drawn figures or graphs if necessary. If the article is relevant to a case history in your experience, put this down on paper. It will be great fun to read the summaries in the future, and may even provide material for any memoirs or talks when you retire

Author Bio: Syed Peeran has more than 25 years of experience in the design of electrical distribution systems. He was an adjunct professor at Northeastern University, Boston. He has written several papers in the transaction of IEEE and two sections in electrical engineering handbooks. He is an emeritus member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.