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How to Use the PQ4R Method to Study for an Exam

Woman studying in front of a computer screen.

The PQ4R method (sometimes called the “SQ4R method”) is a process used for learning new information. E. L. Thomas and H. A. Robinson developed the method in 1972 to help students develop reading comprehension skills, but it can work well for anyone who is reading new material.

Learn and use the 6 steps of the PQ4R method to really “know your stuff.”

1. Preview (or Survey)

This step is similar to the THIEVES method. Skim the title, subtitle, headings, and visual images (graphs, etc.), as well as the first and last sentence of each paragraph.

2. Question

Convert each heading into a question. This will help your mind focus on the question you want the text to answer.

For example, take the heading “Speed Limits on the Interstate.” You can turn that heading into this question: What is the speed limit on the interstate highways? That seems like good question. But what your exam asks, or what you need to know while driving, might not be answered by the “what” question.

Therefore, try a broader perspective.  Other good questions to consider would be:

  • Where are the posted speed limits in relation to the on-ramp?  
  • How do authorities decide the speed limit on the interstate highways?
  • Which interstate highways have higher speed limits, and which ones have lower limits?

It’s fine to start with a “What” question, but if the text does not answer that question, or if it isn’t “deep” enough, try a different question.

3. Read

The key for this step of the PQ4R method is to not simply “read through,” which is what most people tend to do. It’s critical that you read deliberately, making sure you understand what you’re reading.

After many years of helping people to pass the IBLCE Exam, I’ve seen that a big problem is that people skip over words for which they do not know the definition. To pass an exam, it’s critical for you to know your terminology. If you’re having trouble with lactation terminology in general, consider using my flash cards.

4. Reflect (or Respond)

When using the PQ4R method, you’ll want to take time to reflect on what you’ve read and what it means for you. Ask yourself:

  • Why might this be important to my daily role, or to the upcoming exam?
  • What is it that I don’t know about this topic that I might need to know?
  • How would I take the information here and convert it into my communication, problem-solving, or other application-level responsibilities?

Reading without reflecting is a little akin to having someone talk to you when you are not truly listening. The information ends up going “in one ear and out the other,” and you don’t take in its full meaning.

5.  Recite (or Record)

I’m a big believer in Pauk’s directive to recite material. Yes, yes, it’s “talking to yourself” but it works!

But if “talking to yourself” seems kooky — or even if you like reciting your work — use your smart phone (or any device) and record your comments. It’s a great set-up for review. (I love Evernote for recording these kinds of notes.)

6.  Review

Ah, this is so important! If you are taking a comprehensive exam, chances are you will spend many months accumulating the information that is necessary for passing the exam. Eventually, you’ll realize that you have a foggy recollection of the material you studied weeks or months or years ago.

If you routinely review the notes that you made in Step 5 of the PQ4R method, you’ll find yourself capable of doing an orderly and efficient review.

Ideally, you should start with the first “chapter” at each review session. That way, you are continually reviewing and reinforcing your knowledge of the earliest material you learned.

Just try the PQ4R method!

The 6 steps of the PQ4R method are easy to implement. Especially if you find yourself struggling with material that is new to you, try this method. Not only will it help you now, this method can set you up for a great review!

Have you tried the PQ4R method? How has it worked for you? Tell me in the comments below!

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2 Comments

  1. steph krasner

    Hi Marie,
    this method looks amazing. thanks for sharing. trying to print it out, but only page one in English…the rest look chineze?… is there a way to print in English? THANKS! SK

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Oooooh, whoa! I’m not multi-lingual so I’m sure I wrote it all in English! First, try quitting out of your browser (Chrome or whatever you are using) and then trying again. Sometimes that clears your system. If that doesn’t work, let me know. I’m sure we can find a way to get you the “real” English. And yes, this is cool. Steph, always great to hear from you…of course, I remember you distinctly!

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