Reading is fundamental to college success, regardless of your major or field of study. According to the University of Michigan-Flint, the average college student enrolled in standard courses should study between four and six hours per day. Reading comprehension and retention of facts and data are two skills you need to master in order to get the most out of your college experience.
Here we’ll explore various techniques for academic reading: what to do and what not to do as you try to maximize your reading comprehension. We also consider a sample essay about radiation chemistry (courtesy of WyzAnt) to illustrate the strategies we explore.
How to Improve Your Academic Reading
The following techniques will help you gain the most knowledge from each reading resource you consult.
Read with purpose
Before you begin reading, try to determine the purpose of the reading as it relates to the rest of the course curriculum. You should first pinpoint the type of information that can be gleaned from the text: does the resource contain data and figures you need to memorize, or does it describe abstract concepts you need to be familiar with in order to progress in the course?
Master the art of ‘skimming’
Rather than poring over an assigned text in its entirety, skimming the pages for important content saves you a lot of time and reading energy. As noted by an academic reading guide from Swarthmore College: “[Skimming] is not just reading in a hurry, or reading sloppily, or reading the last line and the first line. It’s actually a disciplined activity in its own right. A good skimmer has a systematic technique for finding the most information in the least amount of time.”
You should pay close attention to the text to differentiate key passages from tangents, extraneous remarks, and other information that is somewhat irrelevant to the assignment. Keep an eye out for “signposts,” or terms/phrases that denote sidebar discussions. “I would argue” and “As a side note” are two examples. Generally speaking, you can avoid reading these paragraphs in detail. While skimming implies selective reading, it’s also important to review the entire text to ensure there aren’t any key facts or data hidden in seemingly unimportant paragraphs.
There are, of course, certain assignments you should not skim: works of fiction for a literature class or long readings intended to be essay prompts, for instance. When it comes to textbooks and other standard academic readings, skimming can be quite effective.
Assess the validity and relevance of the text
In addition to course assignments, a substantial amount of academic reading is required in order to write high-quality research papers. For these compositions, students are often asked to curate reference materials and resources on their own.
First, as noted by the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, you should make sure all resources for your research paper are scholarly, or “written by experts in a particular field and serve to keep others interested in that field up to date on the most recent research, findings, and news.” While not all of these resources are necessarily relevant to any given research paper, scholarly publications are regarded as more credible and authoritative than non-scholarly works.
Most university libraries allow students to perform customized searches in order to pinpoint books and other publications with specific information. Once you outline your research paper, conduct a thorough search of your school’s library system to locate the resources you need. This illustrated example from the University at Buffalo’s library system explains how to search for different works by keyword, subject, author, and title. Remember to scan the shelves around books you locate, since reference materials are usually categorized by subject.
Once you obtain a few potential research paper sources, take some time to skim the content and flag particularly informative sections or quotes. If you are required to return the books in relatively little time or are unable to check them out, make photocopies and organize the documents to match the general outline of your paper.
Approach articles and books differently
The bulk of your academic reading takes one of two forms: published books or journal articles. Although these two sources feature a different layout and composition style, they generally cover the same topics, and you can use the same strategy to review books and journals before a thorough reading.
If you are assigned a book reading, it might be helpful to begin with introductory passages before delving into the core text. According to the University of Southern Queensland, students should “never start reading at page 1 of the text.” Instead, you should first consult the introduction, table of contents, index, author’s notes, even the conclusion. These resources help you establish the main focus of the reading, which, in turn, allows you to read with purpose and skim the text more effectively. Additionally, taking a glance at book reviews on sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble is a useful way to capture the theme of a publication before you begin reading.
Just as most scholarly books have an introduction or cursory passage of some kind, the majority of journal articles come with a brief abstract, or summary, of the entire piece. Most abstracts are two to three paragraphs in length. Although many academic journals are only available for purchase, most corresponding abstracts are available free-of-charge.
Prioritize and organize your reading assignments
If you have a large amount of reading to do, it’s easier to stay on task if you
pick out the most important assignments and group readings by topic beforehand. Consider putting the books and printouts into piles by subject or theme, with the most important readings on top. Then, work through your assignments methodically. Chunks of reading can make an enormous pile of reading seem manageable, and it’ll be easier to identify and track overarching themes and connections between assignments.
Develop effective ways to remember important content
As you engage in academic reading, it is crucial to retain all of the important facts and data present in the text; for most people, this means multiple read-throughs. The University of Southern Queensland notes that one’s ability to retain information from a book or journal article is linked to their reading experience. “The quality of memory is related to the quality of your interaction with what you are trying to remember. Obviously, if you have organised, dissected, questioned, reviewed and assessed the material you are reading, it will sit more firmly in your memory, and be more accessible.” For this reason, most students have an easier time remembering articles about recreational subjects than academic texts; personal stake or interest in a topic generates higher levels of retention.
You can increase “memorability” of a certain reading by utilizing visualization, oral recitation, and other cognitive techniques that enable you to totally comprehend the text. Some students create mnemonic devices to help remember ordered lists, formulas, and other detailed information sets. One example is the phrase “Dear King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti,” which is a mnemonic device for remembering the eight standard rankings of biological classification (Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).
In the next section, we discuss some note-taking techniques that further increase your retention of academic readings.
Impose time limits
Despite the common practice of all-night cram sessions, most academic experts agree that students should set time limits for their academic readings – and stick to them. A carefully budgeted reading schedule allots more than enough time to complete the work, re-read the material once or twice to increase memorability, and compose some useful notes about the text.
According to a report from Utah State University titled, “How Many Hours Do I Need To Study?“, the relative difficulty of all your courses during a given semester/quarter should dictate how much time you spend studying per week. “High difficulty” courses require three hours of study, “Medium difficulty” courses require two hours, and “Low difficulty” courses require one hour. Once you determine the levels of difficulty, multiply the hours of each course by the number of hours you attend the class per week. This yields the number of hours you should devote to each course on a weekly basis. For example, a high difficulty course you attend three hours per week generally requires nine hours of weekly study.
The USU report recommends no more than 20-25 study hours per week. Students should enroll in a combination of high, medium, and low difficulty courses each term to ensure they are not overwhelmed with the weekly requirements.
Taking Notes as You Read
Every student has his or her own preferred technique of academic note-taking. Whichever method you choose, the same rule applies: clear, informative notes are fundamental to successful memorization.
According to a tutorial from California Polytechnic Institute (Cal Poly), there are five distinct schools of thought when it comes to academic note-taking; these systems can be used to take notes during a live lecture or when you are engaged in academic reading.
- The Cornell MethodLecture/reading notes are transcribed (using shorthand language) on a sheet of paper with clear margins. Once the lecture/reading is finished, write one- or two-word cues in the margins beside each important information point. To review the material, cover the main body of your notes and leave the cues exposed; with proper studying, you should eventually be able to recite all of the information by just seeing the cue.
- The Outlining MethodMost students learn this method during their primary/secondary school education. General ideas are written on the far left-hand side of the page and, as the material becomes more specific, the notes are indented further to the right.
- The Mapping MethodRather than simply writing the notes, mapping typically entails a visual component: numbers, marks, color coding, or some other sort of illustration of the academic text.
- The Charting MethodLike the mapping method, charting includes an element of graphic representation to supplement the written notes. In this case, it usually takes the form of a graph or data table.
- The Sentence MethodThis system involves creating a different sentence for each distinct thought, fact, or data point, and then numbering them on the page in an order that corresponds to the lecture/reading. You can build on sentence-based notes by adding page numbers or other markers for your own reference.
In addition to different note-taking methods, here are a few extra tips to help you generate better notes for your academic readings:
- Make flashcardsThese can be especially useful for memorizing vocabulary terms, key concepts, and important dates. Create a set of flashcards for each distinct section of the course; this allows you to learn each section individually, and then combine all of the flashcards to comprehensively study for midterms and final exams.
- Rewrite til it hurtsFor formulas, chronological timelines, and other subjects that require understanding of a specific order, it can be helpful to simply transcribe the notes by hand until you’ve memorized the proper sequence.
- Mark quotesIf you are writing an academic research paper, quotes from authoritative sources are a valuable commodity. Use color-coded Post-It notes to mark useful passages in your book sources, and create a digital document with copy-pasted blurbs from online journals and publications. Do not forget to note the page number as well as the individual who has coined the quote, and his/her official title if it isn’t the author of the work.
- Refer to more than one source for tricky topicsHaving trouble understanding the fundamentals of a certain idea or concept? Locate a source that covers the same ground and compare/contrast the different definitions. Sometimes it is easier to grasp information with more than one frame of reference.
- Create a list of remaining questionsSometimes, an academic source does not cover all of the information you need. Once you finish reading and compiling notes from a given work, take the time to consider and write out other topics you still need to research in order to fully understand the material.
To demonstrate what a thorough job of academic reading looks like, we have evaluated an excerpt from an undergraduate chemistry class. In the margins of the essay, we explain the mentality and strategies an attentive student should employ when reading the sample. This advice can be applied to any assigned reading given to you throughout your undergraduate studies.