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Anxiety about reading: I can't focus or remember

Learn more about techniques and tools to help you if you feel anxious about reading scholarly texts

You might be feeling:

  • I spend a lot of time reading, but I struggle to remember what I've read.
  • I'm bored by the subject matter and have a hard time focusing on the text.
Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay 

What can you do right now?

It can be frustrating and disheartening to spend time reading something but not be able to remember any of it. The good news is that memory is something that can be developed, and with practice remembering things becomes easier.  Additionally, the better we understand something, the more likely we are to remember it, which means that it's normal to need more time to remember what you've read at the start of a program or when you are reading about an unfamiliar topic.

If you'd like to remember more about what you've read, try active reading using the SQ3R Method
1. Skim the article or chapter to get a sense of what you'll be reading;
2. Create questions;
3. Read;
4. Recite what you've read in your own words;
5. Review and make notes; have you answered the questions you asked in step 2? 
Using these steps engages you in the reading process so that you're an active reader, and because of that, you're much more likely to remember what you've read.

Johnson, J. (2013). SQ3R reading method [Video file]. Retrieved from

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist known for being able to teach complex concepts to just about anyone.  His technique is simple and effective if you are trying to learn something new. 

Sprouts. (2015). The Feynman technique [Video file]. Retrieved from

It is always easier to read something we find interesting or that is written in an easy to read style. Unfortunately, the readings assigned for school won't always be incredibly interesting to you or may be difficult and dense to read.  Try the strategies below to help you stay focused on your reading: 

Bring your curiosity to your readings by asking yourself

  • Why you are reading that text? 
  • What do you hope to learn? 
  • If your instructor chose the reading, why do you think your instructor chose that particular reading?
  • What do you think your instructor hopes you will learn from it? 

Question yourself using the KWL method (know, want, learn)

  • What do I already know
  • What do I want to know? 
  • What did I learn from the reading?

Challenge yourself to learn something new: If you're already very familiar with the topic, you may be able to skim the reading; however, to help you stay interested in the text, challenge yourself to find information that is new to you within the text.

Set a timer and give yourself a reward: It can seems like a simple thing to do but it works. We're not designed to read and process information for long stretches of time. Set a timer for 30 minutes and start reading. As your mind drifts (which is completely normal), bring it back to your reading.  You're only committed to 30 minutes, and you can do this! Once you're done, celebrate, stretch, take a short break, and then set the timer again.

Reading effectively takes time and energy, and when people feel overwhelmed, stressed, or exhausted, it is very difficult for our brains to focus and process information. 

Remember to:

  • take breaks;
  • minimize distractions (e.g., turn notifications off on your phone);
  • get enough sleep;
  • eat well; and
  • exercise.

It may feel like you don't have time for these activities when you are trying to get all your readings done, but if you take a little bit of time to take care of yourself, you will be more efficient, more focused, and better able to retain the information you've read.

If you still feel like reading is significantly slower or more difficult for you, consider booking an appointment with a Learning Strategist or contact Accessibility Services to learn more about how to be tested for a suspected disability (e.g., dyslexia). In the case of a documented disability, please contact Accessibility Services to learn about the accommodations that are available to you.

Where can you learn more?

Ask for help

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