People often struggle to remember details of prose text because they never processed them in the first place

People seem to forget most of what they read, and they mostly don’t notice, but this isn’t just a process of long-term memory decay. In my personal experiences, and in my experiences working with students, some details are apparently forgotten because they were never really processed in the first place. The reader’s eye just skidded right over some sentence or paragraph, and the idea was never perceived at all, or so little attention was paid that the idea was never really processed. Sometimes the trouble is that the reader didn’t understand what a sentence was saying, but didn’t realize that or didn’t interrogate it; in either case, the idea will not be remembered. The problem here isn’t that these ideas can’t be recalled a day or a week later; it’s that they can’t be recalled ten seconds later—the idea never made it that far.

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Per [[How to Read a Book - Adler and vaccumsan elementum sementary reading” problem: the reader can’t state “what the text says” (as opposed to what it means, or why it’s being said).

Of course, separately, people will often struggle to remember details because they didn’t understand those details—they didn’t know what the prose meant, and that makes it much more difficult to remember, particularly if the recall task requires even the mildest of Transfer learning.

See 2023-03-31 Patreon letter - Memory systems and problem-solving practice for my observations of this with a student.

Adjunct questions improve comprehension of related but untested content; it’s proposed that this is in part because these questions put the reader into a more attentive state. See also The mnemonic medium may push readers to read more slowly and attentively.


Less explicitly related:

  • Chen, S., Fang, Y., Shi, G., Sabatini, J., Greenberg, D., Frijters, J., & Graesser, A. C. (2021). Automated Disengagement Tracking Within an Intelligent Tutoring System. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence, 3, 595627.
    • Detects when people are less engaged during a reading experience, demonstrates that their performance on reading comprehension and recall tests correlates with inferred engagement scores.
Last updated 2023-11-29.