SQ3R for Primary-Source Coursework
a guide prepared by
Dr. Jacqueline Long
Department of Classical Studies
Read with Commitment
|Doesn't it sound simple, even self-evident? If you want to learn by your reading,
you are asking the activity to change you. You are not just giving space in your brain
temporarily to somebody else's words: you want to get knowledge from them, to form
understanding, and to hang on to what you gain. But wanting is only aspiration. You need
to put yourself into your aspiration so as to give your reading the traction it needs
in order to make its return to you. But how?
Many university Learning-Support Services recommend versions of something called SQ3R.
Francis Pleasant Robinson formulated these practical steps of enacting a commitment to learning
through reading, in a series of books and revised editions from 1941 (Diagnostic and Remedial
Techniques for Effective Study) to 1970 (Effective Study, 4th edn.). Robinson's steps of
SQ3R were Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review. Some variants insert a W for
Write, or alter the old-fashioned verb "recite" to Recall or (with odious contrivance) wRite:
Robinson included writing within his step Recite.
Another variant gets called SQ4R as it adds an R for Relate - more significantly than the
variants that add wRite or Record to the orignial SQ3R as a separate step. But these recommendations
are generally described in terms of reading in a textbook that pre-digests a fixed lesson. What
about reading productively in primary sources, where you aim to generate learning for yourself
and remain open to forming new understandings when you put your sources into different connections?
The following schema adapts SQ3R to this more ambitious (and more creative, more fun) learning challenge:
- Survey: With this step, you orient your attention in relationship to the reading
you're about to perform, and alert yourself to the potential it bears to inform you. Use
external cues where they're available (what topic does the syllabus indicate for the class-meeting
for which this material is assigned? what is the book or the chapter called?) or a fast scan of
any introductory material and the source-material itself. Basically, you want to establish what the
sources you're looking at have to do with the concerns of your course. By tuning in to their major
frequency, before you start studying in detail, you ready yourself to get the most out of them in
the most efficient way.
- Question: With this step you target a starter-set of concerns you will address as you
read. They are the means by which you take charge of your reading. Within the broader frame of
relevance you've identified by your Survey of your primary sources, formulate a couple of specific
questions you want to find answers for in your reading. If your instructor has suggested
study-questions, use them for a guide, but always make the questions your own by formulating them for yourself.
They will enable you to read with a sense of mission and identify specific payoffs: you won't be just
moving through a certain amount of text, but your activity will have a more definite shape and it
will offer more concrete satisfactions.
- If your course is focused on literary or artistic representation, you'll probably always
want to include a question or two about how the representation works: how does a literary text develop
a story-line? how does an image reflect its medium as well as its content? and so forth.
- Many primary sources invite different questions depending on the type of inquiry you're pursuing.
If you were reading a literary text, Hesiod's Works and Days for example, in a class focused
on Classical mythology, you might want to see how its representations of Zeus and other divinities compare
to other mythological stories. If you were reading the same text in a course about women in the Classical world,
you might want to follow what ideas about female beings, goddesses and human women, the male persona
of the text expresses. If you were reading it in a course about the history and economy of Archaic
Greece, you might want to discover what ways of earning a living the text discusses and what risks
and resources it associates with each of them.
- Read, Recite, & Record: Read the text or examine the visual source, with your questions in mind,
find answers, and write down the answers in the form of brief notes. It's
very important to process information in this stage (the step Robinson called Recite). Don't copy or
highlight text extensively. You want kernels you can go back to and re-activate fuller memories of your
reading, not an undigested mass. Note also other elements of the source that, as you read, appear to be
interesting or important: use your Questions to focus your reading, but not to screen out other things
the source is telling you.
- Relate: With this step you connect the information you have just Read, Recited, & Recorded to other
information you command. Integrate your new learning with your knowledge overall. What surprised you?
Why? How does it change what you thought before? What patterns does this new item of learning start to form
- in itself or together with other things you knew before? What new questions does it raise? Record brief
notes on the connections you make in this step, too. Relating is
especially profitable with primary sources, since they don't come to you filtered through a secondary-source
author's ideas about what you're "supposed" to learn from them. Your active engagement with the sources
becomes the generative force of new learning. And because the sources come to you from a multi-dimensional
world, you will be able to connect them to more things than only the initial emphasis that brought them
into your course-material - each of which will add dimension to your understanding of the sources in that
context too. The more connections you build, the more exciting things you can do with the sources. Your
engagement with what you've newly gained, as you Relate it to other learning, also makes it more memorable to you.
- Review: Periodically, return to the primary-source course-work you have done and make sure you
remain in command of it. Once over at the end of the week and once more in preparation for the exam usually
make a good regimen. If just looking at the items on your original assignment doesn't call to mind your answers
to your Questions and the other information that you Read or Related as worth Recording, look back at your
notes. If on the first Review things are still pretty fuzzy, return to the primary source and repeat SQ3R
with the aim of writing more helpful notes. Talk with other students and with your instructor to work through
any difficulties you have with the material. In Reviewing for the exam, ideally you'll have already built
a clear picture of the sources' most important significance for what you're studying, and will need to look
back at the originals only to solidify your memory of details worth referring to when you are proving an
Revised 27 August 2011 by