In 1946 Francis Pleasant Robinson published his seminal work, Effective Study. In it he details the reading comprehension technique that he helped develop with the US Military around the end of WWII, then finalized during his tenure at Ohio State University.
Dr. Robinson was an Educational Psychologist with a PHD in Experimental Psychology. He was in charge of the “How-to-learn” program during his time at OSU from 1937 – 1977. This program was the outcome of his work with the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), in which he used data collected on the study habits of soldiers to help develop higher level learning skills.
What is the ASTP?
Developed during WWII, the program was designed to meet the anticipated need for junior Officers and soldiers with higher levels of technical skills than had been required previously. It got its start on the heels of the Pearl Harbor bombings and was part of the preparations for a planned amphibious assault on the Japanese mainland.
Requirements to the program were high, with applicants needing to score a minimum of 115 on the entrance IQ test. This was later raised further to 120. Following acceptance the recruits were then sent to thirteen weeks of basic training.
With basic training complete the soldiers were assigned to a college campus, of which 227 schools around the nation took part. They were under strict military discipline while on campus and were required to continue with PT, wear their uniforms, and march to class. The course of study was daunting as the program attempted to compress a four year bachelor degree program into a period of eighteen months.
The program was not universally supported however, with opponents decrying the allocation of troops that could be used elsewhere. Ultimately three-quarters of the soldiers were pulled from the program in 1944 and transferred to combat units. Many of these men had given up their non-commissioned rank to attend the program and did not get them reinstated, so were transferred as privates.
While none of the soldiers were able to complete more than two of the three-month terms, it is a testament to the program that four out of five surviving soldiers who were enrolled went on to finish university after the war. 1
The method developed by Dr. Robinson is a reading strategy for developing superior comprehension of written material in a reduced time frame. It is widely applicable to a variety of subjects and helps develop retention and recall of the material.
SQ3R is a mnemonic that lays out the steps to be taken: Scan, Question, Read, Recall, Review. Let’s examine these in turn.
The first step to take when presented with new material is to Scan the document. This means that rather than start reading at page one through to the end, first take some time to familiarize yourself with the work. See how it is laid out, what the progression is, and what points are being made.
This is done not by reading through the text, but by first looking at a few areas:
- Table of Contents
- The Index in the back
- Glossary, if it has one
- Chapter headings
- Sub-headings within chapters
- Authors note
- Footnotes and sidebars
By first scanning the book you are getting a feel for what the author is trying to tell you and how their thinking is organized. You’ll get a broader feel for the work as a whole; a 30,000 foot view of the subject.
Note that you can also do a mini-scan each time you pick up the book, in order to reacquaint yourself with the material that you are about to read, and to get back into the same mindset as where you left off.
Now that you’ve scanned the text and have a better feel for what it is about and where the author is coming from, it is time to start forming Questions. This is a key part of thinking critically and you should be challenging the author to prove their argument rather than just accepting it at face value. You want to be asking questions both on the work as a whole and specific questions on the contents of each chapter.
For the Global View of the complete work think to yourself:
- What is the authors purpose?
- What is their motivation for writing this piece of work?
- Do they have a hidden agenda?
If you already have some familiarity on the subject you can ask questions of yourself such as:
- What do I already know about this?
- Does this agree with what I’ve read previously?
- How does this authors position differ from what I already know?
- What are they bringing to the table that is new?
As you prepare to read an individual chapter the advice given by Dr. Robinson is to turn the chapter title and the headings in the chapter into questions. As headings describe what will be discussed next, if you turn it into a question then the answer should follow shortly thereafter.
Note that it will be very useful to you in the future if you write your questions down, especially later for the Recall and Review stages. I recommend doing your reading on a Kindle as it can be a powerful study tool, especially with some of the new features. Highlight the chapter heading and attach your questions to it as notes, or make up flashcards with your questions then attach your answers as you find them.
If you are examining a work that is not divided up using headings or sub-sections, such as an essay or piece of fiction, then your task is a little harder. In this case it can be better to first read through the chapter non-stop, so as not to interrupt the narrative drive, ask your questions once finished, then go back for a second pass to find the answers.
In examining fiction there is no greater resource than The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne.
If Scanning and Questioning is the preparatory work, Reading is the execution.
You must read through the piece actively, with the questions you have about it firmly in mind. Don’t let the words just slip over you. Examine them for the answers to what you are asking.
It is important to separate the details from the main ideas. Modern non-fiction books are often chocked full of examples and anecdotes supporting each main idea. These can be entertaining and enlightening, but you must focus on the main idea presented as it is the structure that holds the full thesis together. Otherwise you may get bogged down by the details until they overwhelm your understanding.
Always keep the Global View in mind and be asking how this individual piece (chapter) relates to that view as a cohesive unit.
This is where the retention of what you have discovered will be strengthened. It is also where having your questions written down will come in handy.
You should perform this step at the end of each section completed, then again for every section once you’ve finished the entire work. Your Recall can be done orally, with you talking to yourself about it, or it can be written.
The primary objective of the recall session is to identify the major points that were covered and to review the answers to the questions you asked. If you’ve found those answers during the Reading step then this will be your second time examining them, which will help to solidify them in your mind.
When recalling your answers it is very important that you put them into your own words. By paraphrasing the information you’ll create stronger associations which will help you recall the info easier in the future.
This is the final stage and it doesn’t necessarily take place immediately after finishing the book.
An important tactic to use when trying to learn something new is Spaced Repetition. This technique incorporates increasing intervals of time between Reviews to leverage the psychological spacing effect of learning. Put simply, reviewing information spaced out over time makes it easier to learn.
Coming back to your question and answer sheet, or note cards if using the Kindle Technique, after a period of not looking at it will strengthen the associations and make it progressively easier to recall the information. During your review you’ll want to self-test by using your questions as a prompt and attempting to answer them on your own.
Associating key phrases with the main ideas is another outcome you should be working towards. This helps you grasp the Global View of the ideas, especially when re-stated in your own words.
How often should you perform these repetitions? It’s hard to say as there are a number of factors involved. Is it time bound for an actual exam you are taking, or is this for personal knowledge only? Do you already have good mental retention of information or do you require more repetition?
A good starting point is to let the thing sit for a day or two after you first complete it, then perform your first review. Do another at the end of the week. Review your previous book after you finish your next book. Review everything you read once every 3 months. Find the spacing that works for you.
SQ3R is a slower way to read but a quicker way to learn.
Dr. Robinson and the Army Specialized Training Program knew what they were doing and have given us a great technique for rapid knowledge acquisition. The effectiveness is proven by it’s list of alumni, including:
- Kurt Vonnegut
- Gore Vidal
- Ed Koch
- Henry Kissinger
- Bob Dole
- Mel Brooks
If you are using reading as escapism then you probably aren’t interested (and probably didn’t read this far anyway!). But if you’ve made it here then it is a good sign that you read for self improvement. And if that’s the case then this will help you reach your goals faster and with less wasted effort by using a more methodical system for retention.