SQ4R Study System: A Strategy to Practice Engaged Learning

SQ4R Study System: A Strategy to Practice Engaged Learning
Page content

What this article is for:

This article is designed to give you a solid understanding of the SQ4R study method, how it works, why it works, and a general application of it. SQ4R is designed to turn reading into an engaged activity that greatly enhances learning. What’s great about this study method is that it can be applied to virtually any subject and can be used individually, in class with instructor guidance, or in group study – and truth be told, this method is probably at its peak if used in all three. I’m going to tell you how to use SQ4R on your own and give you some tips on using it in groups.

Some History and How SQ4R Works:

Although SQ4R sounds complex, (at least it does to me) let me pleasantly surprise you by telling you that it is designed to work with the way we learn best. The SQ4R study method came about in the 1930’s but wasn’t popularized until the mid-40’s by Francis Pleasant Robinson in his book Effective Study. So, like the Cornell Note-Taking System, you know it has had plenty of time to be perfected. In fact, researchers are still working on improving it.

The purpose is to help you define main ideas in the text by looking for headings, engaging you by encouraging you to make predictions, to question the text, and review. When all the techniques of SQ4R have been developed, they become natural habit and improve comprehension and understanding of the covered material.

Using the SQ4R Study System:

Let’s break this down so that when you see SQ4R put together, you’ll know immediately what it means.


S stands for Survey. Think about skimming the text. You’re looking for headings, main ideas, if there’s pictures, what stands out to you? Also, during this time, you should consider what you already know about the text and make note of it.


Q stands for Questions. This is where you’ll start to become actively engaged. Question the text! If you’re looking in a text-book, turn the headings into questions. What don’t you know? Make note of all of this, and don’t worry, having lots of questions is a good thing. You’ll find answers.


4R stands for four more words that all start with the letter R.


The first R stands for Reading the Material. You have an idea what you’re looking at because you’ve surveyed the text, and you’re engaged because you have answers to look for. If, after reading the material for the first time, you still don’t have an answer, this is no cause for worry. You’re just reading and understanding what you can.


The second R stands for Reflecting on the Material. What does this material mean to you? How can you apply it to your life? Think of living examples, events, someone you know, a celebrity, a pet, some kind of memory – if you can associate the material with something you already know well, you’ve greatly increased your chances of understanding and remembering it.


The third R stands for Reciting the Material. You want to read the text (yes, again). This time, as you’re reading, take some notes down. These notes will be much better because you’re familiar with the text and hopefully you’ve thought of things to anchor the text to (people, events, a pet, something that happened in your life). Now that you have your notes, you want to read them out loud. This might sound goofy to you. I’ll confess that it felt goofy to me. The reason for it is that it helps to associate the text with spoken words (many, many people are auditory learners). Even if your primary way of learning isn’t auditory, you want to engage as many senses as possible.


The final R, the fourth, stands for Review. This takes some discipline. We’re not talking about extensive reviews. They can be brief. At this point, you have very good notes, you’ve attached what you can of the material to real things in your life – be they someone you know, yourself, a memory, a song, a movie, your childhood pet, the point is, you’ve made the material more solid and relatable in your mind – and finally, you’ve recited the material from your notes. Now it’s time to review, frequently, if only for a few minutes.

Applying SQ4R:

It became popular, when I was in college, to make textbooks SQ4R friendly. There are wide side margins in many textbooks, and there’s a reason for this: Notes. You want to make note of what stands out, of events or people in your life that you can tie to the text, of anything that helps you remember. It’s also popular with new text books to include a cd-rom that has quizzes, tests, additional material, and review material (such as flash cards, simple games, and study guides). All of this is designed in a way to engage as many senses as possible, which is the way we learn best; when we apply as much of ourselves as we can.

Here’s an example, let’s apply the SQ4R strategy for math. I’m such a wonderful person; I’ve pulled out my college math textbook. (It’s beginning algebra, go ahead and laugh, it’s okay).


The first thing is to survey the text. We’ll use the first chapter (which the book calls chapter 0. I’m not kidding, check the link). There’s plenty to read that’s broken up into headings. This chapter happens to be about simplifying fractions. (Do I remember how to do this? Haha). I’m going to look at the headers and realize there’s much I don’t know about each. I’ll look at the diagrams and the examples. I’m not looking to get overwhelmed (or very, very angry, which was my habit in college), I’m just looking to see what’s there.



Next is questioning. To look at the text objectively and write down what I don’t know. Another good thing about questioning text, especially if it’s a subject you’re not good at, is instead of having a feeling of being overwhelmed and allowing that to stop you’re learning, questioning your text and putting words to what those questions makes you define what you don’t know. If you write down questions, you have parameters; you know exactly what you don’t know. You know what to look for now, you’re not just overwhelmed anymore.


Now we’re moving into the R’s. The first R is Reading. This is not the last time you’re going to read this, it’s the first time you’re reading it, and you don’t need to understand everything that’s written down yet. That works fantastically, because I’m reading this right now, and I don’t understand everything that’s written down. I’m just reading this and making what I can of it. Things are vague, but I’m seeing some shape here.


Next is the second R, Reflecting, which is hard to do with math. With fractions, because my mom was a baker, I always think of cooking. This can work. Sometimes you may have nothing to tie the material to except for how it’s making you feel at the time, and pray tell: who said that’s a bad thing? Give it a try. This is what the wide margins in the text are for. When something stands out strongly that you can tie the text to, do it.


We’re onto the third R now, reciting. Believe it or not, it’s especially handy to use this part of the SQ4R strategy for math. Read the material out loud. Read your notes aloud. Scream aloud if you must, but please don’t cry aloud (or silently. You can learn this, I pinky promise you). When you read the notes and material aloud, as much as you might hate saying the words “prime numbers” or “factoring” (and I do), it helps your brain make sense of it. In your head, you’re thinking aloud, say it. See what it does for you.

When you get to examples in your math book, read them aloud, and then read the rules that apply. I work as a substitute teacher, and I remember having to teach multiplying fractions. Believe it or not, I remembered exactly what I was doing when I was reading the examples aloud to the students. You may just be surprised at how well this works for you.


We’re at the final R, and that’s reviewing. Do it frequently. I remember professors who would quiz us every morning. Okay, I’m thinking of one specific professor, it was for human biology, and I didn’t like him. I hate to say it now, and I’ll never confess it to his face, but while he may have been wrong on many things, he was right when it came to quizzing us every class, because it gave the students reason to review every day (if we wanted to pass).

Your brain is a muscle, and muscles are slow learners. Cramming will put the material in your head for a short time, but if you review briefly and frequently, in time, I promise it’ll stick. Also, your learning will be greatly enhanced if you do these reviews with a partner, or a study group – and let me give you a very good reason why, in case I didn’t say this enough already: Group studying, or in pairs, creates memories, events, and people that you can tie the material to. The fact that other people can show fresh perspectives on the material also helps.

Let’s Put Everything Together:

In this article, I’ve told you about how to use SQ4R and gave you an example of the SQ4R strategy for math. This strategy is designed to work best with how you learn naturally. It feels like a disciplined system at first, but if apply it on a regular basis, you’ll find it quickly becomes habit and your ability to work through text books – or any other book for that matter – will dramatically increase. To avoid being redundant, I’m going to end with this…


If you’ve come here because you’re trying to apply the SQ4R strategy to a subject you’re very unfamiliar with, that you especially dislike, and that you feel overwhelmed by, you’re probably thinking to yourself: “I’ve read the text, I’ve questioned it, I’ve done all the R’s, none of which changes the fact that I don’t know what the devil is going on! What good does it do me to review material if I don’t know what I’m looking at, or worse, if I’m looking at it the wrong way?” and then spiraling into a tizzy fit in your rage at not understanding the words in front of your face.

Believe me, that much I understand; I’ve been there. I just wish I had been smart enough then to calm myself down and pace myself in class. Don’t let a tizzy get the best of you. If you don’t know the material, you can learn it. Talk in class, and tell the teacher or professor. If you’re really lucky and have a very unreasonable teacher (been there, thanks, yep), look for classmates, look online. There’s a wealth of information on the World Wide Web, but you know that, look at the website you’re on now.

Whatever you do, please, please don’t let being flustered hold you back. Look at the text objectively and sort out what you don’t know. If you let the emotional anger that you don’t understand a certain thing get in your way, you’ll never ever get it. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do something and get angry, tell yourself that you don’t understand it right now, but you’ll do what you can to get it right. You’d be amazed at what you can learn when you make learning engaged, interactive, and social. Give it a shot.