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TIP Sheet

So you're riding along in a window seat on the bus, midway between Chico and Butte College. You pull out your copy of
Mother Jones and leaf through it. In an ad you see a big, pillow-like pink brain with the word "Think!" superimposed. Your eyes rest on it a moment, amused, then move past it. Flip, flip. You stop a few pages later at the photo essay. You look at the pictures. Then you find "The Diddly Awards" and read the whole section, but the last one first, because the last one has an accompanying cartoon. You turn pages idly until a picture catches your eye: the Democratic Donkey and Republican Elephant, both upside-down in death, banner-bearers of a new order marching off into the sunrise. You settle down and read this article.

Unless you are pretty unusual, you do something similar whether you read
Mother Jones or People or the sports page. You adjust your focus and speed. You flip back and forth. You get an overall idea of what's inside before reading some things closely. And some things you never get around to reading. Successful students read their textbooks the same way. Surprised?

Inexperienced students often make the mistake of trying to read a textbook like a pulp fiction thriller. They plod along one page after another, front to back, and don't cheat by looking at how it ends. But it isn't a thriller. Their minds quickly glaze over. There's too much new information, new vocabulary, precious little plot, and hardly any character development. They don't really understand much of what they've read, and they quickly forget even that.

SQ3R is a reading strategy for when you must read a lot in a relatively short time (say, the fourteen weeks that make up a semester), understand it, remember it for tests, and still retain the main concepts going into the next semester. These are the steps of SQ3R:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Read
  • Recite
  • Review

When you flip through a magazine while standing in the checkout line, you are surveying it. You want to know if you want to buy it. You look at the main headings and the pictures. You glance at the cover and the table of contents. Are there recipes? Music reviews? In-depth sports analysis?

Do something similar before you start to read a textbook. Survey it first for just a couple of minutes: What does the cover look like? What is the title? What are the main sections in the table of contents? Are there pictures? Is there a lot of white space inside, or is it full of very dense text? Is there an index in the back? A glossary? What sorts of ideas would you guess are inside? Flipping through the book like this will tip you off to some of the really useful extras the author has offered you-like the glossary-and prime both your mind and your body to the task of learning new things.

After you have surveyed the book, you can start your first assigned reading-almost. First, survey the section. Textbooks are full of clues about what is important and therefore likely to be on tests. For example, read the bold headings; they tell you what the important subtopics are. Notice bold or italic words within the text; they indicate important keywords and definitions. Take note of bulleted lists. Look at the pictures and charts and read the captions. Notice the questions at the end of the chapter.

In particular, look for sections, either in the very front or very back of a chapter, called Summary, Keywords, or Vocabulary. For example, Keith Davis' textbook Human Behavior at Work places a chapter summary of three or four short paragraphs at the end of each chapter. This is followed by a list of the new terms introduced in the chapter. On the other hand, William Brown begins each chapter of his Principles of Economics study guide with a summary that he calls "Chapter Overview," and new terms first appear as the section headings, in bold, called "Key Concepts." Your survey will tell you how your particular book is organized.

After you survey a section, formulate and list questions about what you see there. Your list doesn't have to be pretty. But the process of developing questions forces you to actively engage with the text, and active reading fosters understanding. Developing questions also gives you a purpose for reading-to find the answers to these questions. Knowing why you are reading increases comprehension. Formulating questions also creates connections with things you already know, making both old and new material more memorable.

For example, here are questions one student derived from a survey of the chapter "Managing Change" in Davis' book: "What causes change in an organization?" "Do computer upgrades cause change?" "Do people usually resist change?" "If so, why?" "What types of people embrace change?"

If you have trouble developing questions about unfamiliar material, use the vocabulary lists and questions at the end of the chapter to generate ideas. For example, here is Davis' end-of-chapter question: "Think of an organizational change that you have resisted at some time. Why did you resist?" (302). Here are questions you might derive from this prompt: "Have I experienced an organizational change? Was Dan's promotion to shift manager an organizational change?" Another tactic is to use the "reporter's six": who, what, when, where, why, and how, as well as so what and who cares: "Who is Roethlisberger, and why should I care?" or "What are the three types of resistance to change?" A key terms list may suggest questions: "Do unfreezing and refreezing have to do with computer programs?"

Some of your questions will turn out to be good ones. Some will turn out to have missed the point. (Unfreezing and refreezing have nothing whatever to do with computer programs in this context.) Some will be answered within the text and some won't. It doesn't matter because even off-target questions activate your thinking.

You have surveyed your text and have a handful of questions jotted down. You have actively engaged with your book, activated prior knowledge, and have at least a superficial purpose for your reading. Now you can read.

But wait–don't start at the beginning. Start by reading the questions at the end of the chapter or section. Then read the summary if you are lucky enough to have one. Read the terminology/vocabulary section if you have it. Then go to the beginning of the chapter or section and read page by page. Read more slowly for difficult parts and faster for easier parts-you wouldn't drive from Oakland to L.A. at one steady speed, and you don't read that way, either. Visualize; that is, make pictures in your head to go with what you read. Don't forget to read the section headings. They are not simply decorative elements.

Read with a pencil in your hand. You can use it as a pointer to scan pages smoothly (see the TIP Sheet "Faster (Better) Reading" for more on pointers) or draw asterisks, arrows, or happy-faces next to important points. Use a highlighter with discretion, and only on a second reading, for if everything is highlighted, nothing stands out. If you do not wish to mark up your books, take brief notes on a piece of paper as you read, copying down key terms, names, dates, formulas, or steps. (Learn more about note-taking from your textbooks in the TIP Sheet "Double-Entry Reading Journals.")

After you read a great magazine article, you often go out and tell someone about it. You summarize the article's main idea using your own words. Maybe you don't understand some of the points: "But what I don't get is why he would say that it doesn't matter what anyone does at this point," you tell your friend, "since obviously...." As you re-tell it, you crystallize your understanding of what you have read and uncover weak points in your understanding (or possibly weak points in the author's argument).

Similarly, soon after you have read your text, tell
yourself what you have read. If you have a tolerant roommate, explain it to her. If you don't, pretend you do and explain to an imaginary listener. (Try this in your car when you have no witnesses. If you are seen, pretend you are singing along with the radio.) Try answering the questions you developed earlier. Try answering the questions at the end of the chapter. Thumb through the chapter once more, changing the section headings into questions and answering them. Thus, the heading "Hawthorne Effect" becomes the question, "What is the Hawthorne Effect?" The answer is, "The Hawthorne Effect is that just simply observing a group will change its behavior" (Davis 285).

It's hard not to learn something when you have to teach it to someone else. Reciting reinforces your understanding, and you will almost certainly remember more for longer. Reciting also reveals which concepts are still vague, so you can go back to those sections and re-read them.

Half of what you read will be gone in fifteen minutes unless you review it immediately. Recitation is one form of review. If you are not reciting to yourself (or someone else), at least read over the notes you took while reading and add whatever you need to make them understandable over the long term. Use your own visual devices, numbers, or different colored highlighters in your notes or in the book to identify important points or to connect ideas.

Reviewing in many short sessions keeps you from overloading on too much information (or conflicting information) and better moves information from short-term to long-term memory. Use bus ride time to review a section of the book. Use TV commercial time to review another. Use lunch time to review half a chapter of notes. Review frequently in small, logical chunks; luckily, most textbooks present in small, logical chunks. Plus, since you tend to remember first and last facts best, this method maximizes recall since you have a lot more first and last facts this way.

Elements of SQ3R can serve a variety of purposes. Use survey techniques, for example, in research, to decide whether you need to read a book or article at all. In an emergency, a thorough chapter survey or a careful read of a chapter summary can get you through a pop quiz if you haven't yet read the material. (Warning: You're taking chances here; chapter summaries omit details your instructor may be fond of. Do go back and read the whole chapter!)

SQ3R is a method for identifying and extracting the most important 20 percent of information from books even if it is imbedded in 80 percent non-essential material. It can help you use your textbooks in a very practical way to achieve very practical results.

Davis, Keith and John W. Newstrom. Human Behavior at Work: Organizational Behavior. Eighth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972.

Brown, William. Study Guide to Accompany Principles of Economics. Prepared by Daniel Y. Lee and Melissa Thomasson. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1995.

The SQ3R method of reading is a strategy for effective academic reading which has been around for decades. It is all about standing back and looking at the outline of the text you are going to read, preparing for the reading by getting some questions ready, looking for answers as you read, remembering what you read and then reviewing what you’ve read so you don’t forget it. All these techniques lead to ACTIVE reading and reading with a DEEP APPROACH which I have mentioned before. It is completely different to the casual reading that you do in your spare time. You might be thinking ‘That sounds like hard work!’ and you would be right - it is WORK. Rather like an athelete who has to put the hours in to become fit enough to win a competition, students have to put the hours in to learn their subject and polish their academic skills so they can do well in their studies.

SQ3R stands for:


Survey the text you are going to read. This means reading the title and thinking about what it means. Look through the text and look at the sub-headings and the summary. Look at any diagrams or pictures. After your survey you should have a good idea about what the text is about.


Before you start reading carefully look at the first heading and think of some questions that you think will be answered in this section of the text. If the text is ‘THE STORY OF COCA COLA’ and the first section has the heading ‘Beginnings’ then you might note down some questions such as:

When was the company started?

Where was it started?

Who started it?

Now you have a reason to read! Your reading should be focused with an aim.


Now read that first section of the text and look for the answers to the questions that you wrote. You may not find all the answers, but what is important is that you are reading for a good reason and you will try to understand everything you read because you are looking for particular information. You may find other important information that you didn’t think of asking about. MARK YOUR TEXT! Underline things, write things in the margin!


When you have finished reading that section stop! Can you now say what the most important parts of the text that you read are? Can you look at the questions that you wrote earlier and say the answers out loud without reading the text? This RECALL is sometimes referred to as RECITE which means ‘to say something from you memory’. If you can’t recall or recite the main points of what you’ve read then it hasn’t made an impression on you!


When you have worked through the whole text this way you need to review what you have read. But not just once at the end of your reading. If you never looked at this text again, it is unlikely that you would remember the content of what you read very well. Can you say what the main points of the text are the next day? If you reviewed your reading by recalling the main points of the sections of the text the following day then you would be helping this information get into your long-term memory. It is not a case of memorising sentences word for word, but a case of reviewing the main points so that you can articulate them in your own words.

There are any number of good web resources which give further information about SQ3R, just google SQ3R and you will find plenty. You should always use a number of different sources to gain a proper understanding of something.  Birbeck College, University of London, have some great learning resources. You can see the list via today’s link. Scroll down to READING SKILLS and follow the link for ‘Reading Academic Texts: SQ3R’.  Here it is.

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