How to Read on the Internet (and Remember What You Read)

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In this post, we’ll cover:

  1. The science of reading (and remembering what you read)
  2. Tricks to enhance your reading comprehension
  3. How to highlight, annotate, and take notes on what you read
  4. How to synthesize what you’re reading to ensure you understand

“All genuine learning is active, not passive. It involves the use of the mind, not just the memory. It is a process of discovery, in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.” -- Mortimer Adler

In 1940, Mortimer Adler published the bestseller How to Read a Book.

In it, he explained the science of reading a book -- how to consume content and retain what you read. It quickly became the primary reference for people interested in learning how to read better. 

Adler broke down his reading process:

  1. Before you read, skim the work to understand what it’s covering
  2. While you read, highlight and take notes
  3. After you read each section, quickly articulate what you just learned
  4. Once you finish the book, summarize your takeaways and thoughts

The biggest practices Adler taught don’t just apply to reading books. In the era of the internet, they apply just as much to content you’ll encounter online -- essay series, blog posts, ebooks, newsletters, and articles.

Since 1940, Adler’s book has sold over half a million copies -- because these principles are so important to improving the value of your reading habit. In this article, we’re going to break down how his principles apply to learning and reading on the internet -- and how they can apply to your own self-directed learning process.

The science of reading on the internet

Regardless of the type of content you’re consuming -- books, blog posts, or newsletters -- the same basic principles of a good reading habit apply.

The most important thing is to make reading a habit. If you aren’t reading consistently, none of these principles will matter. 

Once you’ve begun reading regularly, your content consumption will only be valuable if you both understand and retain what you read. You need the content you’re engaging with to make sense, and you need that information to stick.

To achieve both of these ends, critically engaging with the work is important.

In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler shared a few practices that can help with your comprehension and retention:

  1. Inspectional reading (skimming a work before you deeply read it)
  2. Agreeing or disagreeing with the author
  3. Making a work your own

These practices also apply to your reading on the internet:

Inspectional reading: before you read a full article, essay, or ebook, skim through it and get a sense of what it’s going to cover. Read its headings and subheadings (and its table of contents if it has one) and get a sense of where the author plans to take you. This gives everything you read more context once you start reading line-by-line.

Think of this like looking at a map before you take a trip. When you understand how where you are fits in with the rest of the world, it gives more context to the specific location you’re experiencing.

Agreeing or disagreeing with the author: as Adler said, the best reading is active. Just because an author posits a thought doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. Don’t read a book and nod your head; consistently ask yourself how what you’re reading maps with your own opinions and understandings.

Making a work your own: highlight, annotate, take notes. The best works in your personal library are the ones that look like you’ve had an entire conversation in the margins. Don’t be afraid of marking up the things you’re reading (more on that later!)

The science of reading comprehension

“To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.” -- Mortimer Adler

Before you agree or disagree with something you read, you must first make sure you understand it.

A good test of understanding is reiterating what you’ve read in your own words. If you can explain a concept you’ve read about without using any of the words used in the original (besides necessary proper nouns or verbs), you clearly understand it.

If you can’t reiterate it in your own words, you should keep reading -- and hold off on your own opinions until you can.

This rule of understanding is part of why a writing habit -- even if only in the form of taking notes -- is such a valuable part of learning. When you sit down and write about what you’re learning, you’re reformulating the concepts into your own words, which helps with your comprehension.

There are three steps to reading comprehension:

  1. Reiterating in your own words
  2. Asking questions
  3. Exploring what follows — answering your own questions! 

If you consistently practice these three steps, you’ll ensure that you’re clearly comprehending the content that you’re reading. 

If you can't reiterate what you're reading in your own words, you should kee preading -- and hold off on your own opinions until you can.

How to practice the science of reading on the internet

There are a few simple practices you can use to improve your process for reading on the internet. 

These practices take very little time to implement, but they’ll have a significant impact on your comprehension and retention of what you read -- and how useful the information is that you’re intaking.

Highlight what you read

Highlighting is a great practice to help you organize and retain information. It makes it easier to re-read and cross-reference something, because it allows you to pick up the most critical pieces of information on your second pass through a piece. It’s an important piece in the science of how to remember what you read. 

If you’re studying a topic, you’re going to want to internalize the most important points in a piece. Highlighting helps pull out and emphasize those key ideas.

It’s valuable to highlight:

  • Anything that seems interesting
  • Anything you might want to quote later (especially if you’re talking publicly about what you’re learning)
  • The key points of the piece (when you come back through and skim the piece for a refresher, what are the most important points to re-read?)

Annotate key points

As Adler said, “All genuine learning is active, not passive.” As you’re reading, you should be critically thinking about the content you’re consuming -- and sometimes that’s going to lead to insights and observations that you want to jot down.

Annotations are valuable for noting:

  • Points you want to come back to/study (e.g. “research X topic”)
  • Anything your reading makes you think about (e.g. takeaways, insights, or your own opinion on what was written)
  • Questions you have about a given point (e.g. “if X is true, what happens to Y?”)
  • Parallels or similarities between the points being made and other things you’ve read (e.g. “X reminds me of Y”)

This is important not only for helping you remember what you read, but also for helping you remember what you thought about what you read.

Take notes on the broader piece

As you’re reading, you should also be collecting deeper insights on the ideas covered in the work.

Think about the difference between annotations and notes as a matter of specificity. Annotations reference specific lines in a piece, while notes can capture your broader thoughts as you’re reading.

Take notes on:

  • Insights and broader ideas about the topic (e.g. “most people seem to misunderstand how X applies to Y, because Z”)
  • Brainstorms and spinoffs (thoughts and ideas triggered by the topic)
  • Your key takeaways from the piece (the most important things you’re

Don’t get lost writing notes that are too complex. If you make it complicated and time consuming, you’ll be less likely to do it -- and that’s not really the point.

For your notes to be effective, you just need to make sure they’re specific enough to be clear and easy to understand.

Synthesize what you’ve read

The most important step in translating learning to knowledge is the critical thinking you do about the content you’re consuming.

Synthesis is an important part of the knowledge-integration process.

According to Merriam-Webster, synthesis means "the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole.”

In the context of organizing ideas, that means

  • Combining ideas from different sources (e.g. the contents of multiple blog posts on a topic, or the ideas you’ve engaged with through multiple books)
  • Exploring the relationship between different points in a given piece
  • Combining the ideas you’ve read with your own pre-existing ideas (e.g. how does this content overlap with your own worldview?)

As you synthesize ideas, you start actively engaging with the content you covered. You move from engagement to ownership.


Putting all this in practice

If you consistently put all of these steps into practice: highlighting, annotating, notetaking, and synthesis -- you’ll quickly enhance your reading practice. You’ll comprehend better, retain more, and find it easier and easier to use your learning in your day-to-day life.

That’s what all of us here at Edvo are doing!

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