What is the SQ3R method and why was it developed?
SQ3R (also known as the SQRRR method) is an acronym for a 5-step reading and study method originally suggested by Francis Pleasant Robinson in his book Effective Study. Robinson (1906-1983) was a professor of psychology at Ohio State University (OSU). During World War II, droves of army personnel were sent to colleges and universities to attend intensive training in skills relevant to winning the war. Robinson headed the Learning and Study Skills program at OSU, and based on his research devised the SQ3R method and other techniques to help military personnel to learn specialized skills in as little time as possible.1 In his commentary ahead of Veteran’s Day in 2002, Thomas G. Sticht called it “The reading formula that helped win World War II”.
Multiple spin-offs of the SQ3R method, including PQRST and SQ4R have subsequently been suggested.
All of these methods provide a systematic approach to reading, and suggest that you write down a set of questions first and then read actively with the aim of answering those questions. Note that all acronyms contain a Q.
How does it work?
SQ3R stands for
- Survey (the book/a chapter to get an overview)
- Question (ask one or more questions for each section in a chapter)
- Read (and mentally answer the questions)
- Recite (recall the answers to a section’s questions from your memory and write them down)
- Review (a complete chapter, by answering the chapter’s questions from your memory)
Robinson originally devised SQ3R to read college textbooks in a systematic way, and thus remember the important information. He assumed a textbook with chapters containing headed sections (and optionally headed subsections).
He advises to turn each section heading into a question (step 2), and then actively read the section (step 3) to answer the question. Note: If you are stumped, try one or more of the usual question words what, who, where, when, how, and why with the section heading.
After each section, the learner is to recite the answer to the question from memory and note down this answer as a phrase or keywords on a sheet of paper (step 4). This should be done in one’s own words and preferably in outline form.
Steps 2 to 4 are to be repeated for each headed section of a given chapter.
Step 5, review, is performed after completing a chapter by briefly looking over the notes to get the big picture, and then reciting the chapter’s main points from memory.
So far my summary of the method as originally outlined by Robinson.2
How to adapt SQ3R and note taking to the 21st century and information technology?
A systematic approach to reading is as relevant now as it was in the 1940s of the last century. These days, I read most books as e-books and consequently use computer tools to take notes.
It is important to be flexible with SQRRR and adapt it to the book and your reading purpose. For example, if you have short chapters or chapters with no headed sections, you can formulate all questions for a particular chapter in advance (rather than per section), and then actively read the chapter in one go before reciting the answers. This, in fact, is my favorite way of applying SQ3R.
Reading Textbooks Section by Section
When following Robinson’s classical SQ3R method (with recitation from memory after each section) I usually take my notes during step 4 (recite) in Microsoft OneNote in outline form (following the section and subsection headings present in the text book chapter). This outline becomes the basis for the first review (about 10 minutes after finishing my reading) in which I recall the answers for the whole chapter. The notes also help during subsequent spaced reviews (e.g. after 1 day, 2 days, 1 week, 2 weeks…).
Tip: If you use OneNote, you can press Ctrl-Alt-D to dock it to the side of your desktop next to your e-book.
Reading General Non-fiction Books
When I read general non-fiction books, with the intent of remembering what I see as important (as opposed to reading just for entertainment), I create a list of questions for the whole chapter (during the chapter survey) before reading. If the chapter is not too long, I read the whole chapter in one go and mentally answer the questions as I go along. During the recitation step, I answer the chapter questions from memory (either on a sheet of paper, or again, in OneNote). In this case, I do the review step a few hours later by re-answering the chapter questions, and sometimes creating a chapter mind map either with mind mapping software like Freeplane, or by hand.
You have read this far, so I think my new book might be very helpful for you: A no-nonsense guide to help you to improve your memory and learning and manage information. It contains a whole chapter on reading and memorizing a non-fiction book and much more. Sample it on Amazon:
In my opinion, active reading and a systematic approach like the SQ3R method are as relevant as they were 70 years ago. Just equip yourself with the tools of the day and start reading 😉
- Sticht, Thomas G. “The Reading Formula That Helped Win World War II.” Reading Today 20, no. 2 (November 2002): 18.
- Robinson, Francis Pleasant. Effective Study. 4th ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
- Carlston, David L. “Benefits of Student-Generated Note Packets: A Preliminary Investigation of SQ3R Implementation.” Teaching of Psychology 38, no. 3 (July 2011): 142–146.
- Chastain, Garvin, and Steven Thurber. “The SQ3R Study Technique Enhances Comprehension of an Introductory Psychology Textbook.” Reading Improvement 26, no. 1 (1989): 94–96.
- Feldt, Ronald C., and Robert Hensley. “Recommendations for Use of SQ3R in Introductory Psychology Textbooks.” Education 129, no. 4 (Summer 2009): 584–588.
- Huber, Jennifer A. “A Closer Look at SQ3R.” Reading Improvement 41, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 108–112.
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