University students spend a good chunk of their time doing required readings for courses. They also spend their time before tests cramming as much information they possibly can into their brains. For students who take five courses, if not more, per semester, that adds up to a lot of reading, and sometimes in order to catch up, students may speedread. This brings about the question: does speedreading help with memory retention?

Some may reason that it’s better to quickly read something than not read it at all. Assia Messaoudi, a third-year English major, agrees that speedreading is “equivalent to reading a summary. It takes a lot less time”.

When dealing with copious amounts of information, university students need to be able to decide what information is important and disregard the rest.

“It is not only key to read the material quickly, but to also be able to absorb any key information,” says Joey Close, a third-year professional writing and CCIT double major.

Close finds that speedreading brings about another skill, known as selective reading, which allows the reader to zero in on useful information and discard the rest.

A program called Iris Reading offers free (online and in-person) speedreading and memory workshops for U of T students who have trouble keeping up with their reading materials. These workshops teach speedreading techniques with a focus on comprehension, and also teach ways to memorize effectively.

“As students, we’ve all been told to memorize things, but very few people have been taught how to memorize. There are very interesting techniques, some that date back to Ancient Greece, that can help students in scenarios where they need to commit something to memory,” says Paul Nowak, the program director at Iris Reading.

The Iris program’s workshops not only help those who are struggling with their course readings, but Nowak says, “Students enrolled in our programs are basically learning how to learn.”

While speedreading can help develop skills such as selective reading, how effective is the technique when it comes to memory retention? Are students who do last-minute studying or speedread a paragraph likely to remember it in the long run?

UTM psychology professor Craig Chambers says that speedreading is ineffective and also hampers the process of getting the desired information from a text.

“When it comes to studying from print-based material, the best advice is usually to do whatever you can to encourage ‘deep’ processing. This often involves doing something to make the comprehension process more controlled and deliberate, such as making ‘Fs’, ” says Chambers.

“The eye can only ‘take in’ print information when the eye is still, focusing on a particular piece of text. These moments, which we call ‘fixations’, last on average around 200 to 250 milliseconds in duration,” says Chambers. He also says that during these ‘fixations’, the human eye can only focus on three to four letters to the left and 14 to 15 letters to the right from the point of fixation.

“This limitation in acuity is the reason why we make many shifts in our point-of-gaze as we read,” says Chambers.

According to Chambers, there is a way to become a more “effective and efficient reader”, without relying on speedreading. The answer is to read more.

“Individuals who engage in reading more often show stronger abilities to extract information and correctly identify the broader meaning of a stretch of text,” says Chambers.

However, Maxanna Brooks, a part-time graduate student at University of Southern California and a participant in the Iris speedreading workshops, says that one key technique that she picked up was “to utilize [her] finger or a pen as a guide to focus and anchor [her] eye movements to the page as [she] reads”.

“This assists with smoothly gliding the eyes back and forth across each page. This method is in lieu of the jerky, one-word-at-a-time manner I was used to. Rolling my eyes instead of jerking the eyeballs actually did reduce the strain I had begun to feel,” says Brooks.

Brooks believes that techniques such as these both increased her confidence in tackling numerous reading assignments and decreased her “anxiety levels from wondering if I would be able to keep up with the many reading assignments for my classes now and in the future”.

Chambers cautions against having expectations that speedreading will help retain information, saying that “a better way to test yourself is to see if you can recall and explain material without any more assistance than a keyword or two to get you started”.

Nowak, however, warns against taking too much time in notetaking when first setting out to read. “It would be better to finish reading a paragraph or section of text before taking notes,” he says. “Notes should be concise with abbreviations used when possible so you can quickly get back to making progress through your reading material.”

“The reason [the Iris Program] focus[es] so strongly on comprehension and memorization strategies is because too many speedreading programs focus only on speed. But speed means nothing if you can’t understand and remember what you read,” says Nowak.

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