You have been given your reading list for a lecture series or seminar course and you may be wondering how it is possible to read so much in such a short time. Don’t worry, there is a method to reading academic texts and articles and a set of skills that will help you make the best of your reading and learn what you need for your course. The one thing you should not attempt is to sit down and read every word of each book and then make notes afterwards. I have read many exciting academic books but if you read a text in this manner that is so packed with detail and which probably contains quite a bit of vocabulary, terminology, and ideas that are new to you then you will not absorb much and the notes you make afterwards will hardly be ordered in a manner that facilitates understanding and remembering. That is in fact a passive reading habit. Far more effective is an active and directed reading that begins with questions and interacts with the text.
Know what you are looking for and ask questions
An understanding of what you have read is far more effective than rote memorization of facts. The former shows you have gone deeply into the text, the latter is shallow and you will soon forget what you have memorized. Remembering the new material you are learning depends on understanding what is being read and this is where the active art of reading is effective. You have a general idea of what you expect to learn from the text. Read the introduction and then write down some questions on what you expect to learn. Read the introduction again and the conclusion. This will give you a clearer idea of what the author intends to investigate and the conclusions she reaches.
Scan the headings and sub-headings
By scanning you are tracing the thread of the author’s thesis. You are not looking at detail yet. You can start taking notes now and possibly revise and add to your questions. What are the principles and main theories being asked by the author? How does this relate to what you already know of the subject? Put what you are learning into the context of what you already know. Read critically. At this stage keep your reading flowing. Don’t worry too much about taking in detail. It is a general understanding that is being built up here, the foundations.
Skimming the text
You are now looking more closely by skimming a page and looking for key passages. This does not involve reading word for word until you find a paragraph that is key to a fuller comprehension. Make notes on what you read here and I would also advise you to jot down page numbers for later reference. Continue skimming until you are satisfied that most of your questions have been answered. You have now reached a point where you have a good understanding of the text and can ask questions based on whether you agree with all you have read or to enquire further.
Some of the following advice may seem obvious but they are points I forgot when I first began studying and which can save a lot of time consuming searches later.
- Take notes as you read
- Begin by writing down title, author, publisher, and publication date as your heading. If the book is borrowed from the library you will not want to have to go searching for it later if you are citing from it in an essay
- Always note the page on which you have read significant points for the same reason as above
- When you find a good possible citation note it in full with references
- Write down the main points of the book, adding detail where significant
File your notes so they are easily found when you need to refer back to them. File them according to subject and book. When you come to revise, or to write an essay, then you have a quick and effective reference system that will save important time.
Remember, it is essential to be a critical and active reader.