The SQ3R Method


Survey, Question, Read, Recite and Review

Studying works better when it means something to you, when it relates to your life. There are a number of ways to do this and I recommend you try as many as you can. One fact which we all know from our own experience and psychological research has documented is that we remember things better when they are connected to emotions. This includes that funny sort of emotion "curiosity" and the nice experience of having it satisfied. So, one way to have things stick more is to find things that you're curious about.

Less intuitive, perhaps, but again documented, and believable once you think about it, is the fact that we remember things better when they are interconnected. To take an example, which of the following lists of 5 words would be easier for you to remember?

1: dog always smoke question just


2: cars are hazardous inside cities

For most of us, the second is easier, because it means something*, it is a list of things that are interconnected. Making such connections is called elaboration in cognitive psychology and the more elaborate your schema for something, the better able you are to remember it: Chess experts have better memories for positions of pieces in a chess game than do novices, but not if the pieces are randomly placed on the board. You can use these facts about human minds in your own studying by actively making connections between ideas. Any connections seem to help, but the ultimate connection seems to be to things you care about in your life where you bring in the emotion as well.

SQ3R (Robinson, 1970) is a method for active elaboration of material that you read, say in a textbook. It consists of 5 steps. I'll talk in terms of a chapter from the text, but this can be adapted to almost anything.

1. Survey (1 minute): Before beginning reading look through the whole chapter. See what the headings are -- the major ones and the subheadings; hierarchical structures seem to be particularly easy for our brains to latch onto -- check for introductory and summary paragraphs, references, etc. Resist reading at this point, but see if you can identify 3 to 6 major ideas in the chapter.

2. Question (usually less than 30 seconds): Ask yourself what this chapter is about: What is the question that this chapter is trying to answer? Or -- along the curiosity lines -- What question do I have that this chapter might help answer? Repeat this process with each subsection of the chapter, as well, turning each heading into a question.

3. Read (slower for some of us than others!): Read one section at a time looking for the answer to the question proposed by the heading! This is active reading and requires concentration so find yourself a place and time where you can concentrate.

4. Recite/write (about a minute): Say to yourself (I do this out loud so I have to study where I don't embarrass myself) or write down (I sometimes do this in the margins of the book itself ) a key phrase that sums up the major point of the section and answers the question. It is important to use your own words, not just copy a phrase from the book. Research shows that we remember our own (active) connections better than ones given to us (passive), indeed that our own hierarchies are generally better than the best prefab hierarchies.

5. Review (less than 5 minutes): After repeating steps 2-4 for each section you have a list of key phrases that provides a sort of outline for the chapter. Test yourself by covering up the key phrases and seeing if you can recall them. Do this right after you finish reading the chapter. If you can't recall one of your major points, that's a section you need to reread.

This method works. It works for me and it has worked for many students in the past. If you have recommendations for how to improve it, I would welcome them for the "next edition" of this mini-lesson.

* - In fact, one good way to remember the first list is to make it mean something, say by adding words: My dog always has a smoke when the question arises of just what life means -- note here too that the humorous image adds an emotion making the sentence even easier to remember, although remembering which words were actually on the list may be a problem.


Robinson, Francis Pleasant. (1970) Effective study (4th ed.). New York: Harper & Row.The call number is LB2395 .R73 1970