The Writing Center


Writing Center Logo

Like any college student, you probably have more to read than you could ever finish even if you stayed up for all 24 hours of a day. Here are some facts about reading.

How Your Brain Processes Reading Material

Frank Smith, author of Understanding Reading, says that your mind works like a bottle: you have a short-term memory that, like the neck of a bottle, can only handle so much being poured into it at a time. Your short-term memory can handle 5 plus or minus 2 chunks of information at a time. The average person’s attention span is about an hour and a half (90 minutes); after 90 minutes, most of us need a good break of about 15 minutes.

Now you know why most people don’t remember much if they cram for a test: they may pass the test, but 6 weeks later, ask them if they remember anything, and they won’t. Long-lasting memory is only had through putting information into the brain in time-limited intervals without too much information.

Managing Those Chunks

If the short-term memory can only hold 5 plus or minus 2 chunks of information at a time, then we have to maximize those chunks. Here are some suggestions:

  • read with your hands: preview the text by flipping through the number of pages you’re assigned and as you see boldfaced sections, make those into chunks for yourself
  • if there is too much to read in 90 minutes, concentrate on getting what you can from those chunks in 90 minutes without finishing—you will actually know more than someone who read the whole thing
  • some people read through and draw pictures of important pieces of information; the sillier the picture, the more you’ll remember
  • be sure to take a break after 90 minutes—a good one where you walk around, clear out your mind, or find something fun to distract you
  • isolate what you goal is for reading: are you reading for a quiz, a test, or to write a paper? the goal should shape how you read
The Worst Thing to Do is to Read Slowly from Page 1

If you read everything LIKE it is a novel, you’ll never be done and you’ll use up your short-term memory quickly!! Set a time limit, keep to it, break your reading into chunks, and go right to what’s important to you. Only take notes if you know you’ll reread them.

Be Comfortable and Happy When You Read

Make your reading area as inviting as possible!! Get a fan, good lighting, all the pens you need, your favorite desk or photos—whatever makes you feel comfortable working there—spoil yourself. Mother Teresa once said that unless your personal life was in order, you wouldn’t have any tranquility. Write your grandmother, call who you need to call, but make sure that comes first, or you won’t be able to concentrate