Memorizing a textbook, although it’s a heavy process, can sometimes be the only way to make sure you pass a particular class.
But what’s the best way to go about it?
Here’s the short answer on how to best memorize a textbook:
First, pick the right book. Then give yourself time (a week per one hundred pages). Finally, break the book down into “chunks”, “hooks” and mnemonics that can help you memorize and recall its material in sequence.
If that sounds like a difficult task, that’s because it is. You’ll need to be patient and committed to making it work.
We’ll get into how best you can do that in this article.
Here’s what else we’ll cover:
- Memorization techniques you can apply to textbooks
- General tips
- My own personal strategy
As a med student, that last point could prove interesting. But I’m confident it could also help students across any subject or discipline!
Ready to get started? Let’s go!
How To Memorize A Textbook Effectively
Let’s focus on the first steps of the approach; choosing which book to memorize.
You’re not always free to choose which book to memorize. Depending on your professor or class, there’s often only one option.
If you’re in that situation, for the sake of your grade, I urge you not to change!
Most of the time though, a decent course syllabus will give students a couple of options.
So this is where your first major part of research comes in; drilling down on which book is best to memorize.
Here’s what I feel is best to think about:
- Reputation (is the book well-reviewed by other students of the same course?)
- Length (the shorter the better!)
- Style (image-heavy, simple explanations etc.)
Keep a list of the titles you feel best match these criteria (I do something similar on my recommendations page). Note down the total number of pages as well as any of the major pros and cons you come across.
Think about which book you could see yourself putting the most effort into memorizing.
Image-based books are great because they tend to convey ideas and concepts in a more memorable way.
While review-style books, especially as they’re shorter and deliver the most relevant facts and information, can be useful too.
Either way, these are the types of books that will be much easier to memorize compared to gigantic textbooks.
Seek to Understand
This part sounds counterintuitive, but it works.
Look at this project as a goal to understand rather than memorize.
Framing it this way makes the whole process easier.
Learning compounds. Concepts build on top of one another. Understanding reduces time spent re-memorizing.
Spend the initial effort to contextualize the information first.
The Reading Process
Before diving into specific techniques, it’s probably worth spending time figuring out what makes a good book to memorize.
Take your list from above and run through the following process:
- Skim each books contents; look at chapter headings, summary sections etc
- Look at images and diagrams
- Look for sample questions to help quiz you on key concepts
- Evaluate the style; is it easy to understand?
- Think about how much of the book you need to memorize; the whole thing or just a small part?
Compare each and pick the one that seems best suited to your own personal tastes and preferences.
And don’t worry if it’s not on your teacher or departments’ “recommended list”.
It’s important you don’t passively read when attempting to memorize. You’ll make faster progress dividing up your time and recalling what you’ve read aloud or on paper.
Once you have chunked your reading sessions and summarised the core aspects it’s important you find a way of archiving this information.
If you prefer the old-school method of pen and notebook try and index your question prompts taken from your reading and space out how often you plan on reviewing them.
Memorization takes time. That’s why a general rule of thumb is to revisit what you’ve learned and actively recall it, in intervals. A good system is a day, weekly, fortnightly, monthly system. But do whatever feels best.
The final approach is to apply what you’ve learned. This means answering questions. And lots of them.
Thankfully good textbooks will have example questions, testing the material you read, included inside. Otherwise, you can practice with topic-based resources you can find all over the web.
The important thing is you practice, get things wrong, and understand why you got things wrong. Thus helping you understand a book. And, as a consequence, better memorize it.
How to Memorize A Textbook: Effective Memorization Techniques
Here’s where I’ll get more into the weeds as to what you should do next once you’ve settled on your book.
The following techniques could help.
Invented by eight-time World Memory Champion Dominic O’Brien, the Dominic system is a great method to remember strings of digits (values, rates, etc).
Simply put, it’s a naming system designed to play on personal relationships. Substituting numbers for initials, you can then better recall the sequence.
To better explain this, imagine we’re studying from a hematology (blood) book and we need to memorize the lab range values for partial thromboplastin time (PTT). In the book, it tells us the correct values are between 60-70 seconds in the human body.
Applying the Dominic method to remember this could work the following way:
- First encode all the numbers with letters; A(0)B(1)C(2)D(3)E(4)F(5)G(6)E(7) etc
- Code 60, using the system, to GA; Giorgio Armani (random – but you can use sites like peoplebyinitials.com to find famous people with initials, or use people known to you)
- Code 70 the same way to EA; Emmanuel Adebayor (soccer player – yes, I’m a fan)
- Then come up with an image of Adebayor playing football/soccer in a bloodied (for the thrombin value) Armani suit (remembering the values 70-60)
Weird but it works.
And even more powerful when used with the Method of Loci technique (more on this later).
This method is quite similar to the Dominic method except it uses a rhyming scheme. It’s used by a lot of memory champions to recall lists of things too.
Using medical students as an example again; this could be useful to recall common symptoms of certain pathologies. Specifically, those listed out in UFAPS (top med school review books).
It works by recalling each item on a list as a “peg”. With each “peg” matching with an object that rhymes with the number.
You then associate your list of things with those “pegs”.
Take for example (sticking on the subject of pathology), the three main symptoms of aortic stenosis; angina, syncope, and dyspnea. Not exactly hard to remember “ASD” as a mnemonic, but using the pegging system you could recognize them more clearly:
- Angina you recall as a compressed gunshot
- Syncope as someone passed out missing one shoe
- Dyspnea as someone out of breath hunched under a tree
This again uses images to aid memorization. You’ll remember there are exactly three of them. And what each of them is.
Method of Loci
Both the previous memory techniques lean heavily on this one. You might have heard it sometimes referred to as the “memory journey” or “memory palace.” It’s also mentioned in the TV shows Hannibal and Sherlock.
Originally born out of Ancient Greece and Rome, this technique went under some resurgence in popular culture during the 60’s thanks to the book The Art of Memory.
Nowadays, it’s pretty well documented, combined with some others, as the primary go-to technique of people seeking to memorize large amounts of information.
It works by memorizing a location; university, a shop, your home, etc, and “fixing” items (the information you want to recall) to places in that location. Then walking through that location in your mind and recalling each thing in sequence.
The idea is the subject uses these places to build an association between distinct pieces of information.
Applying this to memorizing a textbook could involve breaking down a chapter into an individual location. Then doing something like the following:
- Have subheadings of a chapter correspond to a point in the location; with an image detailing simply what it’s about
- Fix each point in the order you would move through the location
- Try to make each point interact with another in the same way that the information builds and relates to each other in a book
Interestingly, this technique was also applied in a 2013 psychological study to treat depression sufferers, using their walk through their own “palace” as a way to reaffirm positive thinking.
A very tried and tested approach!
My Personal Strategy: Medical Textbook Memorization
As a medical student sometimes I find these techniques a bit too time-consuming for chunking individual parts of a textbook I have to learn.
The reason I don’t have to lean on them too heavily though comes from the fact that the best medical textbooks do this for you.
Then there’s also the reason of Anki.
Anyone that knows me personally knows how much I love Anki as an app for memorizing basically anything. In medical school, if you didn’t know already, there are whole communities (hundreds of thousands of students) dedicated to using this application too.
That’s how powerful it is!
In terms of memorizing medical textbooks then, it’s always my go-to resource. It’s also the reason I’ve managed to memorize large amounts of books like Pathoma, First Aid, and parts of other popular textbooks.
Anki, for those of you who don’t know, is a digital flashcard system that you can run and synchronize across any device. Meaning you can go through “decks” at home, on the bus, on the run; anywhere you like.
It’s also useful in the fact it’s free. And that a lot of ready-made decks exist out there that save you time having to make your own cards from scratch.
I highly recommend you search out flashcard decks for textbooks you hope to memorize. If they’re popular, chances are there’s a deck available.
How Can I Enjoy Reading Medical Textbooks?
One last thing worth talking about in this discussion is how to enjoy the process of reading. What works for me, might not necessarily work for you.
There are however a few suggestions I think could prove useful – and no, I don’t just mean choose a great book first!
Here are more ideas:
- Pomodoro technique: rewarding yourself after 25 minutes of focused, scheduled reading is one way to make it seem less laborious
- Set reading challenges: maybe with friends, colleagues etc. to see how much of a book you can effectively absorb in a certain amount of time
- Read somewhere other than your usual location: did I mention I love coffee shops for this reason?
Obviously, the key thing here is not to read for the sake of reading. But rather to apply active recall learning techniques to the session. Pausing to ask questions, summarising what you’ve read aloud or using the Feynman technique, etc.
All the things I’ve already detailed.
Oh and note-taking too. Make sure you learn how to take notes effectively. Don’t just blindly highlight or re-copy things either.
If you’re interested more in the techniques outlined in this article, the following resources might prove useful.
Udemy’s Memory Courses Online – great selection of courses here although I’ve not done any personally
Magnetic Memory Method – where I originally learned about some of the techniques described in this post
Barbara Oakley’s Mind for Numbers – which explains more broadly the use of such effective memory techniques in the maths and sciences
Memorizing textbooks should be done with care and attention. Firstly, you should ask yourself if memorizing a book necessary at all? Then, if the answers, yes, maybe consider the following:
- Book selection – choose only the most appropriate/relevant resource
- Apply active learning strategies to your reading – flashcards, memory tricks etc
- Improve your retention with spacing/intervals
- Test yourself with questions to hard-wire what you’re learning
Memorizing is a big part of passing certain courses. Make sure you know how to do it right!
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in digital marketing and journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.