Here’s a great question about how to memorize textbooks I received from a Magnetic Memory Method fan:
What if I wanted to memorize a chapter in a textbook so I could ace a test on that subject?
That would be cool, wouldn’t it?
Good news: It’s 100% possible.
When I was studying for my doctoral examinations and later for my dissertation defense (rigorous 2 hr. + grilling sessions in front of a committee of 4-7 accomplished professors), I read a total of over 500 books and articles.
I’m not kidding. I almost broke my back at the library on several occasions!
Here’s exactly how I used to operate – and still do when I’m conducting research or just want to memorize the contents of a book using memory techniques. It’s an ongoing memory improvement project to continue learning from textbooks and it all begins with this important step every time:
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Leave Your Fear At The Door:
These Details Will Show You How To Memorize Textbooks
Unfortunately, a lot of people get hung up on the details when learning how to memorize textbooks.
For good reason:
There are some operational factors in what I’m about to describe that might not seem to involve memorization.
Trust me: Each step is essential as you learn how to memorize textbooks. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have included it.
Before I take any of the steps that I’m about to describe, I always begin with a carefully defined Memory Palace. As I talk about in all of my trainings, I always make sure that each Memory Palace involves a location that I’m intimately familiar with.
If you’re having a hard time finding good Memory Palaces, check out the MMM Podcast episode: How to Find Memory Palaces. It will help.
Plus, make sure that you have the free Memory Improvement Kit so you can use the worksheets and videos as a guide.
Create Limited Set Memory Palaces Based On The Textbooks
You Want To Memorize
I always chart out between 4-10 stations within each room of that Memory Palace. In the past, I usually made more (like 50 or so, often with between 30-50 stations within a single room). These days, I’m more focused on small sets of information.
Because I find that leads to more meaningful quantity over time with my current Mandarin Chinese learning project.
Create The Right Mindset
This is important:
Decide to work with the correct mental attitude. For example, when sitting with a textbook or journal article, I need to have the attitude that I will walk away with the most essential information firmly magnetized into my mind.
You should do this too.
Take a moment to relax.
I recommend that you adopt a traditional meditation pose on the floor, or lay down for awhile and do some progressive relaxation. Either way, I spend time practicing a bit of pendulum breathing and maybe even the Human Charger.
With those operating procedures covered regarding how to memorize textbooks, let’s get into further detail.
1. Look At The Book And Read The Conclusion First
When approaching a new book, carefully examine the front cover and the back cover.
- the colophon page
- the table of contents
- the introduction
- the conclusion
Finally, scan through the index (if available).
The scholar Gerrard Genette calls these parts of a book the “paratext,” (the text beside the text). This step takes about five minutes and effectively trains your brain to understand the scope and dimension of the book with respect to its topic.
Why read the conclusion first? Part of the reason is to judge whether or not the author’s conclusion about his or her own subject was profound enough to warrant reading all of the steps needed to arrive at it. The introduction and conclusion also give clues regarding which chapters of the book might be the most important to focus on.
2. Manage Index Card Mania
It’s important to decide how much information you want to take away from a textbook in advance. That way, you don’t overwhelm yourself.
And you can start in a structure manner. Like this:
Take out an index card and write down the name of the author, the title of the book and all of the bibliographic information.
Number this card “1” in the top left corner. Before starting with a book, I tend to decide in advance exactly how many pieces of information I want to retain from it. This is the principle of “predetermination” that I discuss throughout the Magnetic Memory Method training. Often, I default to three facts or details per chapter, but always keep enough index cards on hand in case I want more.
The reason for deciding these matters in advance is because
a) failing to plan is generally planning to fail (especially when it comes to structured reading), and
b) predetermination prevents overwhelm.
Less is more. When you use the Magnetic Memory Method for something like foreign language learning or studying, you’ll find that by focusing on just a few key points, a lot of the surrounding information will automatically “stick” to the memorized material.
Try it. It just happens.
3. Get Started
The beauty of having operating principles is that you never sit around wondering how to get started. You just dive in.
So after reading the introduction and conclusion, you should now have in mind which chapters you want to read first. Just get started with one of them.
If you’re having decision anxiety, just go in the order they appear in the book from beginning to end. Don’t let thinking get in the way of forward progress.
4.Think In Threes
Here’s the deal:
At this point, you know that there are three pieces of information you’re going to walk with away from each chapter. You’ve got your index cards ready to go and can start gathering the information.
It doesn’t have to be a limit of three. You might want to go for five or ten. The important point is to pick a structured operating principle and go with it.
5. The Ownership Mindset
Since you’ve already adopted the attitude that you’re going to succeed and literally “own” the key information in the book, it’s time to play a game totally unlike other brain games I teach. This game works especially well if the book is boring or completely outside your interest.
Pretend that you’re the talk show host of a program and later that evening and you’ve got to interview the author. Millions of people will be watching, so you really need to the book. And you need to read it fast.
What this mindset allows is for you to ask questions while you’re reading. You’ll get really curious, and instead of reading passively, you’ll actively engage with the writing.
Also, ask “else” questions. This means that instead of stopping after a round of:
You add “else” to each one:
- Who else?
- What else?
- Where else?
- When else?
- Why else?
- How else?
This technique will help you create new knowledge as you learn.
Try it. You’ll love it.
6. Categorize Every Gem
(Studying Is A Numbers Game)
When y0u come across a gem of a detail, write it down on the index card. Write down the page number where you found the information on the bottom right corner.
Do this regardless of whether or not you’ve jotted down a quote. Should you ever need to find that information again, you’ll know where to go. If you have any secondary ideas, use the back of the index card to capture them.
At this point, don’t do any kind of memorization. You’re familiarizing yourself, learning, connecting the details with information you already know and gathering new facts and details. That’s it.
So let’s assume now that you’ve read a book that has ten chapters and you’ve got three index cards for each.
Each card is numbered, meaning that you now have 30 index cards. All you need now is to be prepared with 30 station in 1-3 Memory Palaces that you’ve hopefully already assigned to the book.
7. Start Memorizing (Magnetically)
Your next step is to simply start with card #1. You want to remember the title of the book and the name of its author. That information is memorized at station #1.
If you happen to know the title of the book already by heart, then you don’t need to use the first station in this way, but it can still be useful to do so, and here’s why:
8. Use The Author As A Visual Element
You can use the author as a “lexical bridge” or “Bridging Figure” to move from station to station as you learn how to memorize textbooks.
See if you can find a picture of the author online. Let’s say that you are reading the book Paratexts, by Gerrard Genette.
I’ve Googled him up and Genette looks like this. Gerrard Genette reminds me of Gillette razor blades, and so I see him shaving in that first room. To remember that it’s Genette and not Gillette, I see him shaving away a beard of Ns growing crazily out of his face. For “Paratexts,” I could ease either a pear bouncing up and down on a textbook, or a can of Para Paint splashing over a book – there are always options.
Here’s another option you can try for finding memorable characters to use as you learn how to memorize textbooks:
9. Exaggerate Everything
Now let’s say that card #2 says: “A text does not exist outside of the text itself.”
That sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it?
Maybe, but we don’t often think about the fact that until someone comes along and reads a book, the book essentially doesn’t do anything. There are billions of books standing unread on shelves around the world that only “exist” when someone is reading them or talking about them. This is what Genette means when he says that “a text does n0t exist outside of the text itself.” Our minds are a kind of text, so when we are reading, two texts are intermingling.
To remember all of this, my second station will feature the book Paratexts itself. I imagine it as an object in the Memory Palace I’m using.
On that specific station in that specific Memory Palace, words are trying to escape from the book, and there’s poor Genette trying to beat them back in because, according to him, there is no text outside of the text itself. He needs to get all of that text back in!
As always, the images are big, bright, colorful and filled with exaggerated action.
To get some of the other concepts in Genette’s thinking that I’ve just described, I might see Genette giving up the battle, and then opening up a lid in his head, which is also filled with words, and allowing the words from Paratexts to mingle with the words in his mind.
From there, on to the next index card.
Now that you know how to memorize textbooks, you can model this process to remember any point, historical date, or formula in a book!
10. Test Yourself Before The Teacher Does
The final step when learning how to memorize textbooks is to test your memorization of the details, facts and concepts you have memorized from the textbook.
I recommend writing a summary from your mind and then checking it against the index cards. One of my supervisors required me to submit summaries to prove that I was reading the books on my list, so I got into that habit and have always been grateful for it.
If you’re a student, I highly recommend that you take this step now that you know how to memorize textbooks. It will not only deeply immerse you in your topic area, but it will provide you with material that you’ve already written when it comes to composing essays, pieces for publication and even your dissertation further on down the road if you decide to complete a PhD.
Also, be sure to revisit the information in your mind following a procedure like the Rule of 5 or the more rigorous Recall Rehearsal procedures of the Magnetic Memory Method. It’s by rehearsing the information into long term memory that you really make it your own.
The best part is that the more you read, the more connections you naturally make, reinforcing what you’ve already learned. Now that you know how to memorize textbooks, you’re going to be a Magnetic powerhouse of information!
Learning How To Memorize Textbooks Is Fun!
What happened during my doctoral examinations? Instead of being stressful as they are for nearly everyone else …
They were fun!
I had been in a relaxed state while reading and memorizing the material, and complimented this by spending a bit of time relaxing before attending the exams. I literally threw myself into a state of self-hypnosis in the corridor outside of the examination rooms.
When I was asked a question, my mind zoomed to where the material was stored in one of my Memory Palaces. Once I found the information, I was able to talk at length about, whether it was Gerrard Genette’s idea about “paratexts” or Aristotle’s philosophy of friendship in The Nichomeachean Ethics.
In case you’re wondering what I did with all those index cards:
I used to wrap them with an elastic band, one per book, and then store them in a shoe box. Somehow, index cards and shoes boxes were made for one another. But all those index cards are gone now and so I enjoy having nothing to do but go through the Memory Palaces in my mind. And thanks to the memory techniques and ongoing memory improvement work I do, that step is often unnecessary.
But it’s fun. And I’m confident it will be just as much fun for you.
Check out this infographic from How to Memorize A Textbook, a similar episode of the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast.