Reading Academically

“Ah yes, but a degree is, of course, death by reading” my mentor and lecturer, Dr Shane Clifton, encouragingly informed me, as I told him of my great battle to keep up with the content. Crestfallen, I felt there could be little hope for success, when I struggled to even read the prescribed texts. Yet somehow, I survived, and learned some useful skills along the way. Here is how I survived my academic reading:

PURPOSE –  know why you are reading the text.

Keep this purpose in mind as you prepare to do your reading – your mind must be switched on to why you are reading what you are reading, what you are looking to gain, with specific questions you would like answered upon completion.  If for an exam, what knowledge do you hope to have gained? If for an essay, what point in your essay plan do you hope this reading develop or respond to? If for a critique, what is the author’s argument and methodology?

  • Is it to help with an assignment?
    • Make sure, by reading the introduction and scanning the subheadings, that the reading is relevant to your assignment
    • Take brief notes as you read, and footnote pages, it will save you time when you come to write assignments
    • Don’t write down entire quotes or phrases unless it is absolutely fundamental – when writing assignments you keep direct quotes to a minimum.
    • What point in your essay plan do you hope this reading will develop, or provide support or another perspective for?
  • Is it for an exam?
    • Look at your syllabus to find out what information you will be tested on the exam
    • Look for facts, analogies, summaries, key points
    • Check yourself every couple of pages by asking yourself what you have just read, what the basic points were.
    • At the end of the chapter you should be able to mentally summarise the basic facts and ideas in the chapter. If the book has a questions section, run through it briefly to check you have understood everything. Reread sections you are unsure of.
    • Highlight key points
  • Is it for weekly forum post?
    • Spend an amount of time on the reading that is appropriate to the % it is worth.
    • If you are engaging with other ideas on the forum, you might just want to read the overview and the section which is specific to what you want to reply.


METHOD – Try the SQ3R Method:

Step 1: SURVEY –  Skim through the reading, by reading the introduction and conclusion, headings, subheadings and summaries.  Look at any diagrams and highlighted sentences.  Try to anticipate what the author is going to say. Make notes, in sequence; then look over the jottings to get an overall idea or picture.  This will enable you to see where you are going, and whether the text will be relevant for your purpose.

Step 2: QUESTION –  Instead of reading paragraph headings such as “Basic Concepts of Reading,” change to a question, to read, “What are the Basic Concepts of Reading?”  These questions will become “hooks”; look over the questions to see the emphasis and direction; then attempt to give plausible answers before further reading.

Step 3: READ –  Read through without stopping, with alertness to answer the questions.  Use all the techniques and principles demonstrated in class. Write notes, in your own words, under each question.

Step 4: RECALL –  Mentally visualize and sketch, in your own words, the important points  immediately upon completing the reading. This forces you to check understanding, channels the material into a natural and usable form, and highlights what you don’t understand.

Step 5: REVIEW – Look at your questions, answers, notes and book to see how well you recalled. Observe carefully the points stated incorrectly or omitted.  Fix carefully in mind the logical sequence of the entire idea, concepts, or problem.  Finish up with a mental picture of the whole.

SQ3R notes taken from Academic Skills Centre, Dartmouth College.

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