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Sq3R Study Method

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Using the SQ3R Study Method
A. Kent Van Cleave, Jr., Ph.D.

Why use a study method? Perhaps you have noticed recently that everyone, especially in the news media, is talking about something called the information revolution. This term refers to some profound changes that have affected most aspects of our lives and that have been caused by computers.

In the workplace, information technology has caused many work organizations to completely restructure themselves. Electronic data interchange has helped companies closely link themselves with their customers and their suppliers. Computers have made mass production obsolete by giving manufacturers the ability to customize the product exactly the way the individual customer wants it. (Look for the big auto manufacturers to have Websites soon where you choose nearly every feature on your car, apply for a loan to buy it, and then specify where it will be delivered, all without having to go to the showroom.) Computers have also automated many jobs, including those of many middle managers. The result of this has been fewer levels of management in large organizations and higher productivity in the production facility. For most products, the cost of the goods on store shelves has dropped dramatically over the last ten years.

But this explosion of information technology has its challenges in the workplace, too. Because of it the pace of change has increased. Work organizations find that they must continually adapt as technology progresses. And workers find that they must adopt a new way of approaching what they do. In order to survive in the workplace, everyone, from the CEO on down to the newest employee, must be continually growing and learning.

Educators today refer to this demand for continual growth as lifelong learning. In business, it is beginning to be called learning on demand. Those who make a commitment to lifelong learning get ahead, and those who do not get consigned to the less skilled, less interesting jobs such as flipping burgers in fast food restaurants or bagging groceries. While these are important jobs and we believe that all work has dignity and worth, these are jobs which offer little in the way of pay and benefits, and these are not jobs that afford much opportunity for growth. Moreover, because knowledge changes at such a fast pace, the lifelong learner will need to be able to learn very efficiently and very effectively. Now and in the future, the good jobs go to the committed, effective, lifelong learners.

Given that you will need to be a lifelong learner and you will need to be able to learn efficiently and effectively, the reason SQ3R is important is that it can help you be an efficient, effective learner.

Efficient, effective learning in the information age, where new knowledge is obsolete in as little as six months, requires that the lifelong learner become very good at the four A’s:

• Access--finding information independently, • Assess--deciding what is important in it, • Assimilate--learning it rapidly, and • Apply--using the knowledge in her/his job.

So we are going to spend a little time on just how to be an efficient, effective learner, discussing briefly some learning strategies that can help you get a leg up on your classmates.

Starting Well to Finish Well. One of the things that cognitive psychologists have learned that can be of use to you in this course (and others) is that we learn knowledge-based material best—most efficiently and effectively—when we first build a cognitive framework (outline), then fill in all the details.

You might think of learning complex cognitive material as being like building a jigsaw puzzle. Just plunging in and memorizing facts without first learning a framework is kind of like putting a puzzle together without being able to look at the picture on the box. If you give identical puzzles to two people of equal ability and motivation but only let one see the picture on the box, almost always the one who can look at the picture will get the puzzle finished first, often by a wide margin. Not having the picture, you have to try to figure out what the picture is while you are trying to put the puzzle together. If you look at the picture first (if you first learn the core concepts/build a cognitive framework for the course), you already know about where each part will fit when you pick it up. It helps you see how the pieces are related to one another and to the overall whole. That makes the pieces much more meaningful to you.

For almost any textbook, you want to work with two frameworks. First is the overall framework of the book, which you get by looking through the general table of contents, then elaborate by studying the specific tables of contents and reading the first chapter. Usually, you do this when you are deciding whether to register for the course, before the first meeting of the class, or before you read the first reading assignment in the text. When you have the overall framework in your mind, you are ready to move into studying the content, and you will use a second framework for that—the framework for the chapter you are studying at any given time.

In a course of this sort most of the core concepts are taught in the first part of the course, and these core concepts also serve as a general framework, though of a more enriched form. The rest of the course is spent building onto those core concepts. It is usually most efficient in learning knowledge-type material to build the framework first (the core concepts or overview) and then to add the more detailed information onto that framework. It is also the most effective way to learn, because it facilitates clarity of understanding. (Efficiency means doing things right—getting them done with a minimum of effort; effective means doing the right things—in this case using the methods for learning the material that work best.)

Building these frameworks is a part of the SQ3R method for study. SQ3R is one of the most effective and efficient study methods we know of. When I (Kent) first discovered SQ3R during my doctoral studies, it improved my learning efficiency and effectiveness by about 40%.

Applying the SQ3R method

The authors of this paper are both cognitive psychologists. Kent taught a course for over ten years, using the principles of cognitive psychology, designed to teach students how to be very effective and efficient learners in college. (Effective means doing the right thing. Efficient means doing things right. If you can be both effective and efficient, you will be successful in whatever you do.). One of the things he taught is the SQ3R method. If you master the SQ3R method, you will learn more with less effort and you will improve your grades. And these will be permanent improvements.

Psychologists and educators have been studying how people learn for over a hundred years. Some have focused on the mental processes themselves, and others have studied which methods of learning are most effective. The SQ3R study method has shown itself to be consistently better than most others, and it has been taught in high schools and colleges for over 50 years. But it also incorporates the best learning principles from cognitive science theory and research.

Learn smarter, not harder. The SQ3R method isn’t hard to learn, and once you learn it you will find that you prefer it over any other approach. The SQ3R method has five steps: • Survey – Get the big picture. • Question – Create questions to make you an active learner. • Read – Read, section by section, answering the questions. • Recite – Say what you read in your own words. • Review – Go over it again to refresh and test your recall.

Here is how you do each of those steps and why it works:

Survey: Get the big picture.

We already discussed the similarity between learning complex cognitive knowledge and working a jigsaw puzzle, as well as the usefulness of being able to look at the picture on the box when you work the puzzle.

What do puzzles have to do with learning from a textbook? Think of the reading assignment as a jigsaw puzzle. All the facts in the assignment are like pieces of the puzzle, and it is your job to make them all fit together so you have the complete picture. But even though it seems obvious to most people that they should get the big picture before they start working on a puzzle, lots of the same people don’t try to get the picture before they start studying a text. Every time they hit a new fact or principle, they have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out where and how it fits in the big picture, even though they cannot see the big picture. It is like trying to figure out where all the leaves in a big pile go without knowing about trees.

Before you start reading an assignment, you can spend a few minutes up front to get the big picture of what you are trying to learn. Those minutes will be repaid with interest when you actually start reading.

Actually, you use this method for two purposes. At the beginning of the course, you build the big picture by surveying the entire book so you know how all the chapters fit together. At the beginning of the chapter, you survey just the chapter so you know how all the stuff in the chapter fits together.

Textbook Survey. Survey the entire textbook before the first class meeting or perhaps when deciding whether to register for a class. This takes a few minutes to do, but it is a wise investment. Here’s how you do it:

1. Read the introduction and preface. These give you an overview of the book. They also tell you about the author’s purpose in writing the book and explain any special features and tools in the book and how to use them most effectively. Knowing how to get the most out of the book saves you time and improves your learning.

2. Look at the table of contents. This tells you what the book (and the course) is about and how the chapters are related to each other. Many books are divided first into sections or parts, and then into chapters. Knowing that makes it easier to make connections between them, and that helps you learn (and later on, recall) the material more easily.

3. Read all the chapter summaries. You don’t have to memorize the summaries, just skim over them so you get the big picture for each chapter. By the time you finish this step you will have a pretty good picture of what the book is about. You will also have a pretty good idea how challenging the course will be for you and how you will need to study the material for best results.

4. Find the glossary. A glossary is a dictionary of terms used just for your course. Also look for those terms in the chapters themselves. In many books those special terms will be highlighted in the text and their definitions will be printed in the margin.

5. Find any appendices. An appendix is a special section of the book that goes more in-depth about something in the book or that explains something you need to know in order to do well with the content of the book. Often the appendix will have a short preface that tell you why it is there. Appendices are put there to help you get more out of the book, so you should seriously consider spending a little extra time on them if you feel the can help you.

By doing these things before you start the course, you make your work for the remainder of the course much easier and much more effective.

Chapter survey. There are two times when you will survey a chapter. The first time is before you read the assignment. The second time is when you are reviewing for an exam. Here’s what you do and how it makes your job easier.

Before you read a chapter for the first time, survey it to understand the chapter’s big picture and tie it into the big picture of the course, and to develop study questions that will help make you an active reader. Getting the big picture first helps you in several ways. First, it helps you understand which parts of the chapter are the most important so you spend your study time wisely. Second, because you see how things are connected together, you have an easier time learning them. Third, when you survey you are setting up retrieval cues that will help you get information out of your head more easily when you need it.

Definition: Retrieval cues are things that we remember easily because we have learned them well. Because of how we store memory, they help us find related information that we may not have learned as well. Mnemonics are an example. It is easy to learn the sentence, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” And with just a little effort we can turn that sentence into a retrieval cue to help us remember the order of operations in a high school math course: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplications, Divisions, Additions, and Subtractions. And nearly everyone educated in America knows ROY G. BIV, the person whose name is the first letters of the colors of the spectrum.

The chapter survey has four steps:

First, look at the table of contents. How is the information divided? How are the sections related to each other? What is the outline of each section?

Next, read the chapter introduction to see • what the purpose of the chapter is, • how if fits with other material in the book, • any suggestions the author gives for learning the material more effectively, and • to get an overview of the material.

Third, page through the chapter and look for tables and figures that summarize the content of the chapter. Tables and figures help you organize and learn the material more easily.

Finally, after you have read the introduction and looked at the figures and tables, skip to the back of the chapter and read the summary. In a summary, the author condenses and restates the important parts of the chapter, while also connecting them all together. This completes your big picture of the material and you are almost ready to move on to reading the chapter. But first, you need to do the Question step. In fact, you will usually compose the questions that are part of the Question step while you do your chapter survey.

Exam review survey

The second chapter survey is when you are starting to study for an exam. When you start the exam review, survey the chapters to gage how well you remember what you studied. This helps you figure out where you are going to need to spend the most time and how much time you are going to need to spend. It also refreshes your retrieval cues. And it provides one of the several repetitions that are needed in order to get information into permanent memory. You can also review just before the exam to re-refresh your retrieval cues.

Question: Create questions to make you an active learner.

Lots of studies of learning have shown that people who have a purpose when they study learn more. The Question step of SQ3R helps you develop a purpose to aid your learning. This purpose isn’t just, “Learn the material well enough to pass the course.” It is an active search through the material as you read, a kind of purpose that helps keep your brain alert to things that it needs to learn.

How the brain learns. The brain is made up of nerve cells called neurons. You have billions of them in your brain. In order for a new memory to be formed, it is necessary for new connections to be grown between these neurons. Four things that you can do to cause those connections to be grown more reliably (so you learn more easily) are to • relate what you are learning to something you already know, • signal the brain when something is important and it is time to grow a connection • repeat material several times over a period of days, and • sleep between when you study and when you need to remember.

SQ3R helps you do the first three of these. And it probably will make you efficient enough that you will have more time for the fourth! The survey step helps you relate new material to stuff you already know. The question step helps you prime your brain to grow the new connections necessary for learning (In effect, you are telling your brain, “When you get the answer to this question, that is important stuff that I need to put into permanent memory.”). And the survey, read, recite and review steps are all repetitions of the material. Without repetitions, you don’t learn very much.

Just passively reading something—being a sponge—is not very effective. If you have a set of questions you want to answer during the reading, you are putting your brain on the lookout for things that it needs to remember. Also, looking for answers puts you in an active learning mode rather than a passive “sponge” mode. This helps you keep your attention focused better.

Develop your questions from the chapter preview, chapter objectives, chapter summary, and questions at the end of the chapter. Develop these questions during the survey step. The questions should seek relationships among concepts and facts--make the material meaningful. And the questions should try to tell you, ”How can I use this information?”

Write down your questions as you preview, so you will have a list of them when you start reading. Whenever you find an answer to one while you read, you can write the answer to the question in your notes. The act of writing the answer adds a repetition and also puts the information into your brain in a different way than simply reading; it creates a motor memory—the memory of your fingers putting the information on the paper. But most importantly, when you pick up the pencil to write you send a signal to your brain that says, “Remember this; it is important.” And it is that signal which is necessary to cause you to grow new connections.

Motor memory and recall, an example of how it works. Think for a minute about a time when you are trying to remember a friend’s telephone number. You hunt and hunt in your mind for the number and just can’t remember it. So you pick up the phone and start moving your fingers over the number pad. Suddenly, as your fingers pick up the pattern, you remember the number.

Why did this work? When you were learning the number you dialed it lots of times and you developed a motor memory of dialing it. You memorized the pattern your fingers move in when you dial that number, and that pattern serves as a retrieval cue to help you remember the number. Similarly, when you take notes as you read you are forming a motor memory of writing down the information (though not as strong as the example).

Why sleep on it? If you decide to add memory or other components to a computer, the first thing you do is shut it down. If you didn’t shut it down first, changing its structure as it operates would cause it to crash. Similarly, if you tried to grow new connections in your brain while you are busily running through your day, the testing of the new connections would cause you some confusion at the least. Recent studies have demonstrated that we grow our new connections while we sleep. It is possible that some of the dreams we have are the result of testing the new connections.

Read: Look for the meaning of what you are learning.

After you have your questions ready, read each section actively, for full understanding. Active reading means you read to understand the material. It means if you hit something you do not understand, you take the time to understand it before you move on, go look it up somewhere, or, if you need outside help, you mark it for future action before you move on. Active reading means you stop and summarize the section you just read in your own words. If you can’t summarize it in your own words, that means you didn’t get it the fist time through. When this happens, an active reader rereads it. An active reader looks up new terms as soon as s/he comes to them, then rereads the sentence or section with that new definition in mind. An active reader pays close attention to figures, tables, graphs which may present the same concepts as the text but in a different, more concise and easy to remember form. An active reader takes notes and/or highlights as s/he reads.

Recite: Repeat it in your own words to make sure you understand.

You just read about reciting in the Read section. Reciting is repeating aloud what you just read as you complete each section—in your own words. (Remember—the more ways it goes in the more ways to get it back out.)

In your own words. Whether or not you are a psychology major, you probably are aware that there are several different methods of counseling/psychotherapy, each based on a different school of thought. There has been some debate over time which approach is most effective, and the general consensus is that nearly all of the different approaches are about equally effective. If this is so, given the very diverse schools of thought that give rise to the different approaches to therapy, what is it about counseling that helps people get better?

One thing the different approaches have in common is that they all involve a person (patient or client…) telling a counselor/therapist about what is going on and the counselor helping him/her structure doing so. In order to tell the counselor/therapist what is going on, the patient/client must first organize it for him/herself. Perhaps it is this self-organization that leads the patient/client to the understanding and changes needed to “get better.”

Putting what you just read into your own words is very important. In order to put something in your own words you have to organize it so you really understand it. And if you organize it you are also learning it. If you cannot say it in your own words after you read it, then you probably don’t understand it adequately, either. So reciting is also a check for whether you understood.

Review: Go over it again to realign to the framework and test your recall. Remind yourself what was important.

You will get best results if you review after every major section of a chapter and after you finish the chapter. If you recite, you are already reviewing after the section. Reciting at the end of the section is the same as reviewing it.

You will get best results if you review the chapter more than once. As soon as you finish a chapter, or when you are ending a study section, review what you just covered. As you survey the chapter, try to recite as much as you can recall from looking at your notes, the table of contents, the introduction, or the summary. That will reinforce your brain connections and may clarify relationships. And it will also tell you how well you are getting the material.

Summarizing at the end of a chapter or study session tells your brain again what it is for which you need to grow new connections. But you might also want to summarize an earlier section or chapter just before you start into a new section or chapter, to refresh the information to which you will be connecting the new material. A final time you will want to review is before an exam.

Practicing what we teach. Let’s review the SQ3R section. • Survey. Before you read an assignment, get the big picture by surveying. Look at the table of contents, read the introduction and the summary. • Question. While you are surveying, make a list of questions you want to answer while you read. • Read. As you read, look for answers to the questions. Read to understand. • Recite. At the end of every section, restate what you just read in your own words. • Review. At the end of a study section or at the end of a chapter, go back over what you just read by surveying again. Review by surveying as you begin to study for a test, too, to help refresh your retrieval cues and to tell you what you need to concentrate on as you study.

New skills are best learned by practicing them. So please take the time to use this approach in your next study session. We think that once you get used to doing SQ3R you will wish you had learned it a long time ago.
How to Take Effective Notes
A. Kent Van Cleave, Jr., Ph.D.

The most important step. One of the most important reasons people take poor notes is poor preparation. Most lecturers depend on students having already completed a reading assignment on which the lecture will be based before coming to lecture. We just said that the survey step prior to reading helps us build the ‘big picture’ so we learn more efficiently. Likewise, read the assignment before going to the lecture to give you a framework to help you organize your note taking. That framework makes it easy to decide what is important, and since you already know the new terms you will hear in lecture, you are able to spend more time attending to understanding the meaning of the lecture. So read assignments before the subjects are covered in class. You will get more out of lectures, take better notes, and learn more with less overall study time. And you will also be better able to make useful contributions to the classroom discussion.

An effective note taking method—two columns. An excellent approach to taking notes is to draw a vertical line down the paper about a fifth of the way in from the left. On the right side, write notes. Don’t try to write everything down as the lecturer talks. Instead, try to summarize the important stuff and copy down any lists s/he recites. Look for signal words in lectures that indicate a list is coming:

“There are several reasons for this. First, you can’t write everything down even if you want to. Second, while you are busy writing down everything you are missing the big picture because you are focusing on the details. Third, as you are trying to write it all down you miss things the lecturer is saying and they don’t make it into your notes. Finally, if you write everything down you have a hard time going back and pulling out the most important points.”

(The signal words in the example are in italics.)

It’s good to have your book open so you can refer to the text and its figures and other visual aids. Chapter notes are good to have open, also. Both of these will help you make connections between lecture content and what you already studied.

In the left column, write keywords, definitions, questions, and connections to what you read in the text (such as the page number where a lecture topic is in the book). Also note handouts there if any are given during lecture. I like to write on the handout the letter H inside a circle, followed by the date and the number of the handout for that session, starting at 1 for the first handout. As I have time, I go back and add the course name or number: (H) 9/12, #1, PSY360.

You should use abbreviations wherever you can in notes. But you should also keep a glossary of abbreviations in the back of your notes book, where you write the abbreviation, the word or phrase it represents, and the first date you used it in the notes.

After class notes review. As soon as you can after class, sit down with the notes and review them. Fill in any blanks or ambiguous abbreviations before you forget what they are. Highlight key points to create a visual outline. If you recite each section of notes before you re-read it, that helps cement the new knowledge in your memory, too. Another thing you want to do in this review is add page numbers from the text if you didn’t already get them in. If you took chapter notes when you read, also make crosslinks to those notes. Believe it or not, that post-lecture review is one of the most efficient and effective things you can do to process your lecture notes into knowledge.

Later on, when you are doing the exam review, keep your lecture notes alongside your chapter notes and the text. As you go through material in the text, study the lecture notes in parallel. This will help you grow really strong connections between the two sets of information, which will increase the likelihood that you will be able to recall both on the exam.

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