Many students in medical education are not used to reading large amounts of dense materials, where, as one student put it, “every word is loaded and I end up looking up everything.” When experts read through a reading they have assigned to beginning medical students, they often underestimate the amount of time and effort that is needed.

In other posts, I’ve discussed how it’s important for teachers to preview their assigned reading materials, and to seek out the best material, through help from librarians and educational team members, that accomplishes their goals and is at an appropriate reading level for students.

For today, I’d like to introduce you to a reading method that may assist our students: it’s called SQ3R.
SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite and Review. It’s an approach to reading that can help students retain the information they have been asked to read. It promotes curiosity and a determination toward reading, that is based on the cognitive processes of successful learners. SQ3R is not a new technique–it’s been around since well before I was a university student–which is a long time! 🙂 Credit goes to Francis Pleasant Robinson who in 1946 first published about it in his book Effective study.

So how does it work?  NOTE:  readers, you may find that this looks like a long process.  While it’s longer than skimming, it can become habitual, OR you may want to take pieces of it for your own.  Please “read” on.
Survey: Basically, SQ3R asks readers to survey or look over a whole reading paying particular attention to:

  • The title, headings, and subheadings
  •  Captions under pictures, charts, graphs or maps
  •  Bold print, italics, numbered items, color coded passages, marginal notes, glossaries, outlines, questions, lists, charts, etc.–these are cues that the author regards these as key items
  • Review questions or teacher-made study guides
  • Introductory and concluding paragraphs
  • Summary

Question while you are surveying:

  • Turn the title, headings, and/or subheadings into questions
  • Read questions at the end of the chapters or after each subheading
  • Ask yourself,
    “What did my instructor say about this chapter or subject
    when it was assigned?”
  • Ask yourself,
    “What do I already know about this subject?”

Read, but read for a purpose:  look for answers

  • Look for answers to the questions you first raised
  • Answer questions at the beginning or end of chapters or study guides
  • Reread captions under pictures, graphs, etc.
  • Note all the underlined, italicized, bold printed words or phrases
  • Study graphic aids
  • Reduce your speed for difficult passages
  • Stop and reread parts which are not clear
  • Read only a section at a time and recite after each section or look away from the text and ask a stimulus question–this breaks your habitual reading and allows you to re-focus

Recite after you’ve read a section: ask yourself questions about what you have just read, or summarize, in your own words, what you read through writing

  • Take notes from the text but write the information in your own words
  • Underline or highlight important points you’ve just read
  • Reciting: for difficult passages especially:
    The more senses you use the more likely you are to remember what you read: Triple strength learning: Seeing, saying, hearing
    Quadruple strength learning: Seeing , saying , hearing, writing!

Recitation requires mental activities far beyond those possible through “stroking the words with eyeballs” in a textbook: a technique so commonly used by students. Reciting promotes and speeds learning while rereading and rereading actually slows, impedes, and in some cases, prevents leaning.

Review:  put it all back together again.  Very few people a whole chapter by reading it once.  The Question-Read-Recite process divides a chapter into sections that can be assimilated separately, into manageable chunks. This allows you to set your own pace.

Regular review puts a chapter back together again. In review, you are answering the question that was made from the chapter title.
Review means regular and frequent recitation (or written recitation) of the material to be learned. This is an excellent check for learning.

So how do you review?  Here are review techniques that have worked for me, for my students and from the literature:

  1. Review one day later, one week later, two weeks later
  2. Make a Table of Contents for a chapter from your notes or from memory
  3. Make a point form outline from your larger notes or from highlighted sections
  4. Put a concept map together:  make a visual diagram of what the chapter’s key concepts are
  5. Review out loud (remember the Triple Strength Learning above)
  6. Cover up parts of a page and test your self on  the corresponding parts.

A Problem and Solutions for Students and Faculty:

One last thing:SQ3R is slow.  At least it is slower than the speed at which many students “read.”  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at it for medical education.  It’s slower than skimming but really effective in retention.  Perhaps students who are faced with large amounts of difficult material can take pieces from this process and add to their own.  Perhaps teachers can recommend or even put in place requirements for a point form outline or list of key questions or a concept map to be brought to class after assigned reading.

Do any of these techniques strike a chord with you?  Do you have other reading/reviewing suggestions?


Concept Mapping. accessed Oct. 7, 2013

Robinson, Francis Pleasant. (1970) Effective study. New York: Harper & Row.

SQ3R reading method.  The Reading and Research Series. accessed Oct. 7, 2013.

SQ3R accessed Oct. 7, 2013

SQ3R Textbook study system.  Worcester Polytechnic Institute.‎ accessed        Oct.7, 2013.

Weideman, M. & Kritzinger, C. (2003).  Concept Mapping – a proposed theoretical model for implementation as a knowledge repository. A working paper from the “ICT in Higher Education” research project.