English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   

tips for stronger reading

Public school students these days often are instructed not to write in the textbooks issued to them. This clean book policy is educational malpractice. Marking up a text by making notes in the margins, underlining and highlighting key passages, helps understanding. It allows readers to repeat and reinforce their reading experiences at a glance, by skimming back over the notes and highlights. Also, the activity of writing registers in our brains far more powerfully than the passivity of eyes-only reading.

Our attention tends to follow our hands. Figure right: homunculus image of the human body, with body parts in proportion to the brain mass that controls them. (The female version is much the same.) An extraordinarily large amount of the human brain is devoted to the hands. When eyes and hands work together, much more of the brain is engaged! Imagine how the brain is stressed by multi-tasking when using the hands and mouth to snack, the ears to hear background music, the feet to tap in rhythm to the music, and only the eyes to read! Be sure your reading is "hands-on," your brain and body working cooperatively together on the text. Reading is hard work, so don’t approach the job half-brained!

When reading for comprehension, read with a pen or pencil in hand. I like to use colored marking pens, or when the book paper is thin, colored pencils. I use a separate color to identify each major theme or issue that I notice and want to track in a text. Marking up the book in this way forces my attention on it. Sure, my mind daydreams and wanders—I may even slumber off at times--but not as much as it would have shut down if I had failed to mark up the book. Moreover, I can now refresh my reading by glancing back through the notes and highlights in the text. It's quicker than re-reading the book again, and it's much more accurate than simply trying to recall the points  from unassisted memory.

Journals and Quizzes

Memory is a physiological process. Brain cells (neurons) connect with one another to form memory networks through a process of repetition known as potentiation. In this process, when we encounter a new experience, networks of brain neurons are activated--but usually with only a weak bond. Reactivation occurs each time the same experience is encountered, and each reactivation strengthens the network bond until finally the neurons are potentiated.  We experience potentiation as easy recall or strong memory. Repeat, repeat, repeat to strengthen memory.  (This neurology explains why commercial ads are repeated endlessly--not because advertisers want to reach everybody one time but because they want to reach one person many times. I remember beer commercials that played on Sundays with NFL games 50 years ago; the brewers have been out of business for decades! Many professors with profound Alzheimers still can repeat word for word the lectures they gave every semester for decades!)

Set aside time, after your reading, to review the text. There are several tricks or disciplines that will force us to engage in this repetition of the reading experience. One technique is taking a quiz or answering questions about the reading. Another is writing journal summaries or notes of the reading.  These disciplines have been incorporated into our course. A quiz and a journal assignment appear in nearly all lessons in this course. At the end of the semester, final assignments will require us to look back over the whole course and sum up key aspects of it.  more on journals

 Studying really works

Neurology tells us why studying really works, why students who take a "read once" approach to their books are outperformed in tests by students who repeat the lessons by making notes, reviewing them, scanning back over the book, or even re-listening to the lectures via tape recordings. Yes, some students go so far as to tape their classes. Dr. G (before he became Dr. G) was one of them. In his law school days, in some of the more dense courses that he took--Mortgages and Liens, Corporate Income Tax and the like--he came away with far better grades than he had achieved in much lower level, simpler courses. Why? In the advanced courses, he audio taped the classes and reviewed the tapes prior to each test. No matter how lost he was in a course during the prof's lectures in class (and often he was seriously lost), he became an amazing expert after he had heard any tape three times! OK, call him a slow learner! Odds are that you are a slow learner, too!

Yes, you may audio tape this course!   But really, why not cut and paste highlights from the course pages or other internet sites into your own notebook or journal? You can start with a blank word processing file and gradually turn it into your own web page. If you collect some texts and play around with them on your own pages, you will be using your hands, repeating the lessons, engaging your brain and building strong memory.  If you work over Beowulf or Utopia or Twelfth Night or Gulliver’s Travels in this way, you will soon be teaching them to Dr. G!

Above: Nicholas Poussin's Shepherds of Arcadia (French 1640) is an allegory of reading. Notice the engagement of the hands! It takes a coordinated effort by four agents to read: (1) the left hand placeholds the text (figure left), (2) the hand/eye combo follows the letters line-by-line (left center), (3) the neural pathway transmits the received message (right center) and (4) the brain interprets it (right). Pretty smart, even in the year 1640!

I am here to help support your learning process,
so be sure ask for help whenever you need it.  – g

 Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess.