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I find it very hard to learn new things through just reading, especially research papers. Previously when I was taking classes I had homeworks to help me learn. I found it particularly helpful to work through some practice problems. Now, when I read something I'll think I understand what it's saying but because I don't have practice problems I tend to misunderstand or not fully grasp the topic and will also have a much shorter memory for what I learned.

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  • Go through the line of argument yourself, fully working it out. Compare with other approaches in other papers.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 18:17
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    Different sorts of papers require different strategies. Are these papers summarizing experiments? Short theory papers? Hundred page papers in pure math? Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 23:16

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This is a bit late, but hopefully it will be helpful. Learning by reading from papers can be difficult. At a baseline you need to have enough background knowledge to understand what's going on. I'll assume you do have this knowledge. From here, you can take some steps to improve your comprehension of almost any paper.

  1. Take notes/highlight/summarize. More generally, make sure you are reading actively. It can be helpful to print the paper, or open it in a program that allows for marking or commenting. This will, if nothing else, help you quickly refresh yourself on the paper in the future. It also ensures that you are critically thinking about what you are reading.
  2. Talk about the papers you read. If you are still affiliated with a university in some way, there must be others in your field who are interested in the same papers as you. There may also be a journal club of some kind. Either way, this would allow you to discuss the paper and hear other perspectives. Again, you're forcing yourself to think critically about it, with the added benefit of outside interpretation.
  3. Pick papers that are directly relevant to something you are doing. This may be obvious, but if you read papers that are interesting and immediately relevant, it can help cement whatever you "learned" from it. This is as close to homework problems as you can get in the real world.
  4. Consider informally "reviewing" the papers that you read. There are many templates floating around online that can help guide a critical reading. Again, this is all about active engagement with the material.
  5. Related to the above, develop a consistent way you approach papers.
  6. Accept that you may need to reread papers. Sometimes putting a paper aside and returning with fresh eyes can help with comprehension. I sometimes notice things on the second or third read that I missed on the first, even if I read it carefully from the start.

If you still find yourself struggling with comprehension or retention, it may be worthwhile to do some self reflection. Why do you feel you misunderstand and forget things? Is your misunderstanding a result of weak fundamentals? Maybe you need to brush up on the basics. Are you actually "forgetting" what you read? When we are in school there is a lot of external pressure to memorize facts for tests and assignments. Just because you can't recall a paper line by line doesn't mean you didn't "learn" information.

All these steps can help you improve your paper-reading skills, and it is a skill. The more papers you read, the better you'll get at reading them.

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