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How to Read for College: Comprehension and Retention

February 12, 2011

Disclaimer: The best way to learn how to ride a horse is to ride a horse.  Riding Lessons cover what I have learned about college from being in college.  They are based entirely on personal experience.  I have not consulted sources of research or theory on secondary education methodology or pedagogy except as it has applied to my own past projects.  What works for me may not work for you.  The conclusions here, though about academia, are not academically rigorous or supportable.  However, that doesn’t mean they are invalid or unhelpful.  You’ll have to decide that.  As the Buddha said, be a light unto yourself.  Good luck.

Notes (photo by English106 courtesy of

In the previous Riding Lesson, I covered time management for college reading.  When we first get that syllabus or that textbook, simply finding enough minutes in the day seems most daunting.  Then we actually dive into the text and often find ourselves sinking instead of swimming.  In this Lesson, I’m going to discuss the last two of the three necessities for successful college reading: retention and comprehension.  These two cannot be discussed separately because they are inextricably linked.

There is a demonstrable link between comprehension and retention.  If you don’t understand it, you don’t remember it.  Just think of all the cartoons you watched as a kid.  Years later when you watched them as an adult, how many bawdy jokes did you discover?  I know I was hilariously surprised.  As kids, we didn’t understand those jokes so they never registered in our memory.  Once we know what it means, our mind can create a place for it within our memory.

The best way to remember a reading is not to go over it again and again trying to memorize it, but to read it very carefully and try to understand it.  There are two basic ways of doing this:  paraphrasing and integrating.  This is a two step process, but it is not always linear.  First, we paraphrase, then we integrate.  Paraphrasing, or what sometimes becomes translation from academic-speak into something you personally understand, helps with short term retention, but integration, a systems thinking approach, results in long term retention.  Often we integrate new ideas into our existing conceptual networks as we read, then we paraphrase them for brevity.  However, more frequently, we need to put things in our own words before we figure out where it fits within our existing body of knowledge.

To paraphrase is “to express the meaning of (a written or spoken passage, or the words of an author or speaker) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity; to render or translate freely,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online.  Basically, it means to reword something.  See what I did there?  I just paraphrased the OED definition to make it simpler.  Paraphrasing is useful in three senses – it simultaneously translates, summarizes, and personalizes the information you are trying to remember.

Let’s face it, sometimes these academic works are so dense as to be almost impenetrable.  We can read the same paragraph three times and still feel we don’t understand what the author is trying to say.  That’s when we need translation.  Learning how to translate academic language is something I’ve picked up over time and partly because I have a natural interest in words.  If there’s an easy way to acquire this skill, I don’t know it.  The best I can do is provide a few examples and hope you’ll get the gist.  Also, if you run across passages in your own studies that boggle your mind, I invite you to post them in the comments and myself and other readers will see what we can do.  Here’s an example:


“I would therefore like to treat Bodhidharma’s ‘life’ as a literary piece belonging to the genre of hagiography.  The first step towards understanding its meaning, then, is to ask what this genre is and by what rules it is governed.  In other words, what is its syntagmatic structure (i.e. ‘the actual link between various functions in a given text’)?  Michel de Certeau has proposed an answer worth considering, namely, that ‘hagiography is characterized by a predominance of precisions concerning places over precisions concerning time. … The life of a saint is a composition of places.’

“The second step is to examine the paradigmatic structure of the hagiographical text (i.e., ‘the virtual relations between analogous or opposed functions, from one text to the other, in the whole corpus under consideration’).  This leads me to ask whether the meaning of the hagiographical text itself has ever been fixed once for all.  According to Ferdinand de Saussure: ‘To imagine that a legend begins with a meaning, has had since its first origin the meaning that it now has, is an operation beyond my understanding.  It seems to suppose really that there have never been any material elements transmitted on this legend through centuries.’”  (Faure, Bernard. “Bodhidharma as Textual and Religion Paradigm,” History of Religions, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Feb. 1986), pp. 187-198)


Bodhidharma’s biography is the story of a saint, rather than just ‘history.’  Saints’ stories have a predictable format and each bit has a role in relation to the other bits.  Places are more important than times.  These stories are important because of their meaning, but that meaning can change, especially if bits of the story get altered over time, which seems likely.

Notes on translation:

Hagiography is the story of a saint, while a biography is the history of a ‘regular’ or ‘actual’ person.  Saints can be ‘actual’ as well, but are more often regarded as almost mythical characters.  Syntagmatic structure is how bits of the text is combined and the relationships they have to each other (i.e. temporal, spatial, or conceptual), per Daniel Chandler’s article Semiotics for Beginners.  (Google is great, Google is good, we thank it for our daily ass-saving.)  A paradigm is a typical model of something, so ‘paradigmatic structure’ is just the usual way it goes.

As you’ll notice, the paraphrase is shorter than than the original.  This is a form of summarizing.  Making summaries is an important time management tool.  As noted in the prior How to Read for College post, we often don’t have time to read absolutely everything.  That also goes for lecture and research notes, so it’s important to summarize, to shorten, to reduce things to the essential main points.  Summaries should been well structured and always get at the meaning.  I’ve said it before, facts are more important for what they mean than what they are.  Now obviously, our professors will expect us to know some facts, but in your summaries, keep it to the bare minimum and only include those facts that have a direct impact on the point which the author is trying to make.  Also, you can summarize with bullet points, without complete sentences, or with diagrams.  Notes can be either typed on the computer or handwritten as in the illustration.

The final part of paraphrasing is personalization.  We’ve all heard or read something and thought to ourselves “Well, that’s true, but it’s not how I would say it.”  One really simple trick to help you remember what you’re reading is to put it in your own words.  In the example above, you’ll notice not only have I translated from academic language into plain English, but I’ve used my English, including slang, mannerisms, personal dialect, irreverence, cliches, etc.  This is academia according to Monica.  Anyone else will write that paraphrase differently.  So should you.  Putting something in your own words makes it yours and makes you more likely to remember it.  After all, when we think, we think in our own words, and that goes the same for remembering other people’s points.  (Of course, exact quotes are often worth remembering, especially when they are particularly eloquent or expressive.)

While we paraphrase, we are often already integrating this new information into our mental data banks.  This means we are utilizing systems thinking, a way of structuring knowledge.  There are many strategies for systems thinking and creating structure, as varied as the people who use them.  They include interdependence, holism, hierarchy, and even (gasp! what a dirty Buddhist word!) dualism.  Because systems thinking is so highly individualized, I don’t feel comfortable attempting to fully explain it here.  However, I will do some thinking and research on the matter and it may be the topic of a future Riding Lesson.  For the time being, I hope this description of paraphrasing has been useful.  Feel free to summarize it at your leisure.


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