How to Memorize a Textbook (3 Effective Techniques)

Memorizing a textbook requires several skills. The first step involves choosing the correct book to memorize. The second involves patience and commitment. The third requires the application of techniques like active recall and spaced repetition (interspersed with memory tricks).

Sometimes the best way to pass a course is to simply memorize the professor’s recommended textbook. Although I’m personally averse to having to do this as a med student, especially when it comes the book selection, oftentimes there’s no way around it.

I’ve written about what I feel are some of the more important study tips a couple of times before. But I haven’t gone into a lot of detail about specifically using textbooks. So here’s where I want to expand. And use this article to explain my thinking.

Maybe even offer you some useful memorization-based study tips too!

How To Memorize A Textbook More Effectively

Let’s focus on the first steps of the approach. Choosing which book to memorise.

Book Selection

Choosing which textbook to study, depending on the course, isn’t always an available option. Some professors base everything off one book. Then suggest, for the sake of your grade, not to deviate.

Most of the time though, a good course syllabus will give students a couple of options. And this is where your first major part of research comes in. So here are some key things to consider:

  • Reputation (is the book well-reviewed by other students of the same course?)
  • Length (the shorter the better obviously)
  • Style (image-heavy, simple explanations etc.)

All the books and resources I’ve found that meet this criteria (at least in medical education) I list on my recommendations page. There you’ll find a good mix of books that boil subjects down to their basics. 80/20’ing a topic so that you can get the essentials and not waste time pouring over low-yield minutae.

It’s a good idea to keep a similar list. One that’s applicable to your course or field of study.

Image-based books are great because they generally convey ideas and concepts in a more memorable way. The same for review-style books that deliver only the most relevant facts and information. Ask yourself; is a big textbook really necessary?

Book selection is probably the most important step of this whole process.

Get this wrong and everything else becomes a whole lot harder.

Seek to Understand

One critical thing to assert here is this. Seek to understand rather than to memorise. Your long-term memory will thank you. And it will become a lot easier to remember new information moving forward.

This is because learning compounds. Concepts build on top of one another. You learn form first, then function. You’ll see this as you move through the years of study.

Understanding, crucially, saves time re-memorising.

Reading Process

Before diving into specific things you might employ, it’s probably worth spending time figuring out what constitutes a good book in the first place.

My recommendations might be all well and good, but maybe you’ve tried them and feel they don’t work for you.

So here’s how to better identify what works:

  • Skim a books contents, look at chapter headings, summary sections etc
  • Look for simplified images and diagrams
  • Does the book have sample questions you can better contextualize the information with?
  • Is the book written in a style that makes understanding easy?
  • Ask yourself; how much of the book do you need to memorize/learn?

The important thing here is to find something that works for you personally. Don’t just follow the crowd.

And don’t worry if it’s not on your teacher or departments’ “recommended list” either. Most textbooks, I’d argue, deliver the essentials. Where they mainly differ is in style and delivery.

Active Reading

It’s important you don’t passively read when attempting to memorise. You’ll make faster progress dividing up your time and recalling what you’ve read aloud or on paper.

Drawing mind-maps can help you associate parts of what you’ve read too. As well as helping you interlink the concepts. You can use things like whiteboards or tablets to help with this.

Spacing

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.

Memorisation 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.

Consolidation

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.

Dominic System

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 haematology (blood) book and we need to memorise 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).

Pegword Method

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.

OneGun
TwoShoe
ThreeTree
FourDoor

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 recognise 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’s 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 memorise large amounts of information.

It works by memorising 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 association between distinct pieces of information.

Applying this to memorising 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 memorising 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 memorising medical textbooks then, it’s always my go to resource. It’s also the reason I’ve managed to memorise 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 synchronise 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.

Recommended Resources

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

Summary

Memorising textbooks should be done with care and attention. Firstly, you should ask yourself is memorising 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

Memorising is a big part of passing certain courses. Make sure you know how to do it right!