Skip to main content

ASC Success Strategies: Reading Retention and Comprehension

Reading Retention and Comprehension

Reading skills span a spectrum from the lower-order skills of remembering (retention) and understanding (comprehension) to higher-order skills of analyzing and evaluating. This is not to say that retention and comprehension are unimportant. Rather, they are necessary in becoming a critical reader and thinker. After all, if you do not comprehend a text, how can you apply the information in your own research or profession?

To develop your skills then, you should build a strong foundation in reading retention and comprehension. This page outlines two strategies to better understand and process the information you read. 


The SQ3R technique is an active and process-based approach to reading. The five steps are survey, question, read, recite, and review.

  • Survey.
    • Start off by getting a preview of what you need to read. Sometimes called pre-reading, this step should include a quick scan of the title, abstract, table of contents (if it is a longer work), section headings, visuals, and references.  As you survey these components of the text, consider what stands out to you. Take some initial notes on your observations.
  • Question.

Actively reading involves being curious. Develop questions based on what you see during the Survey step. The questions should connect the content to your prior knowledge and—importantly—keep you reading even if the topic is not of interest. What do you anticipate learning from the material? What question might motivate you to keep reading? If the reading is part of coursework, consider the weekly theme and assignment when developing your questions.

  • Some example questions might be:
    • For a research article: What were the results of the study? How was it conducted?
    • Why did the author write this? (In other words: What is the underlying problem being explored?)
    • What is the importance of this topic to X population?
    • For a reading with two topics in the title: How is topic A related to topic B?
    • For a reading that is in a sequence of other readings: If I understand that X is true from other sources I have read, how does this information support, contradict, or complicate that understanding?
    • If you see terminology you do not know: What is the meaning of X?
  • Read.
    • Read through the material. While doing so, search for answers to the questions you have posed. Those answers become your notes. Through this approach, you have essentially made reading into a game.
      • You might find that new questions come up as you read. Jot those down too, and develop answers to the new questions as you continue.
      • You might also find that some of your questions do not get answered. Perhaps when you surveyed, you thought the material would be about one topic, but it was really about another.
  • Recite.
    • Summarize the material in your own words and say that summary out loud. Imagine an appropriate audience (such as a friend or a colleague) when performing this step. The Recite step provides three important benefits:
      • Summarizing allows you to check your understanding.
      • Verbalizing the summary helps to store it in your memory.
      • Using your own words supports academic integrity.
    • If you are reading a longer work, you could do the Recite step at the end of each section or chapter. If the reading is shorter, you could just Recite once.
    • In addition to verbalizing the summary, write it down in your notes. This will be helpful when you move on to the Review step next. Note: You may choose to type your notes in a separate document, write them down longhand, or use electronic functions to comment directly on the e-Book or article.
  • Review (and Reflect!).
    • Skim over your notes to review what you have learned from the reading. Have you developed a clear and concise summary? Have you answered all of your questions? If not (or if new questions arose), do you need to seek out additional readings to find answers?
    • As part of your review, reflect on the information. How does it connect to your personal life or profession? To your field of study? To the paper or other writing project you are working on? Is the information useful?


The KWL reading technique (which stands for Know, Want to Know, Learned) involves a series of questions throughout the reading process.

  1. The first question to ask yourself when approaching a text is: What do I already know about this topic? This question taps into your prior learning in the general subject area. By accessing your existing knowledge, you are better able to acquire, incorporate, and retain the new knowledge. List a few concepts or details in a KWL chart such as the one linked below.
  2. The second question: What do I want to know about this topic? This question forces you to evaluate gaps in your existing knowledge. Based on those gaps, determine what you would like to know to better understand the subject. You take an active role in your learning by considering your own curiosity and interest. (Alternatively, you can use this question to predict what information you will get from the text [in which case, you might ask the slightly different question What do I anticipate learning about this topic?]) Pose questions or write brief phrases about what you want to learn in a KWL chart.
  3. The third question (answered when reading and immediately afterward): What did I learn about this topic? As you read the text, search for answers to what you want to know and jot them down in a KWL chart. Also consider crafting a summary of your overall learning.