Reading at University
Reading is one of the most important and time intensive things you have to do at university. I don’t think there’s a single topic that doesn’t involve reading. But it might be quite confronting compared to the kinds of reading and storytelling that you might be used to. Reading at uni is different to reading for pleasure (such as novels or comics), or reading for instruction (like cookbooks or manuals). At uni, we read for a few important reasons:
- To help understand course content
- To develop your awareness of the academic literature in the field
- To prepare you for your own writing
- To develop critical thinking and analytical skills
But reading academic texts isn’t easy! Even if you enjoy reading, you might be surprised by how much more difficult and uncomfortable reading at university can be. You might worry that:
- You won’t understand the content
- The language is too technical
- You will read too slowly to get through everything
- Your reading pile is overwhelming
These are common problems! It’s entirely possible that you have multiple readings per week per topic. That adds up. Plus, there’s any reading you may also need to do as you’re researching your essays. You may also have to read a range of different kinds of texts, and some of them will be more accessible and familiar than others.
Learning to read effectively comes with a large range of important transferable skills, including high-level comprehension, attention to detail, critical thinking and creative engagement.
What will this series cover?
To help you navigate the world of effective critical reading for university, we’re going to go through a few different concepts that will break down individual aspects of reading and together, hopefully, show you how to read effectively for university study. This first blog is all about the basics of what makes up a good reader in a university context. My next few posts will uncover some of these ideas in more detail.
First, I’m going to introduce you to different kinds of academic and non-academic texts. Then we’ll talk about how to understand academic texts and break down their different elements. Then we’ll go over some different reading strategies, and how to take effective notes while reading. Finally, we’ll dive into critical thinking and how to evaluate a text. Phew – that’s a lot! It’s a big series, so stick with us! For now though, let’s go through the essential elements that make up a good reader in a university context.
So what is a good reader?
A good reader is an active reader. Simple, right?
An active reader is in control of their reading. This means they:
- Plan reading
- Are selective
- Ask Questions
- Analyse their reading
- Take effective notes
1. Plan Your Reading
It’s really important to understand why you’re reading what you’re reading. If you don’t know why you’re reading, it can be difficult to know what you should be looking out for, and when you need to read something in detail.
What are your goals for reading?
Firstly, think about why you are reading what you’re reading. Is it for:
- A general overview of a topic?
- To find evidence or facts to back up your argument?
- To analyse or critique an author’s work?
- Revise for a test or exams?
Knowing why you are reading will greatly affect how you read. This might mean the difference between scanning a text quickly to extract key findings, or it might mean reading very slowly and deeply. Consider what your goals are and what you want to take away from a text. It’s particularly useful to write specific goals before reading, for example:
- What do I want to learn from this?
- I need to understand the concept of cultural capital
- What key words am I looking for?
- ‘Cultural capital’, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’, ‘social capital’, ‘institutional’, ‘material goods’, ‘symbolic goods.’
- Why do I need this information?
- I need to define cultural capital in the introduction of my essay
How familiar are you with the content?
How familiar you are with the topic or concept will dictate how much time and preparation you will need to give before you start reading more complex texts such as peer review articles. Consider:
- How much do you already know about the topic?
- Is it a new or difficult subject area?
- Do you feel confident, or have a foundation of knowledge already?
If you are new to a topic, or you worry that it might be particularly difficult, it’s a good idea to consider doing some background reading to familiarise yourself with any key concepts or technical language. This might mean using a topic specific dictionary or primer, or even reviewing your lecture notes and topic materials.
Time your reading
I recommend setting up a timer when you first start reading to get a realistic idea of how long it takes you to read a page. Use this as a guide, and you’ll soon learn how much time you need to set aside for a whole article. Remember the time you set aside for reading will depend on the purpose of your reading. If you need to read in depth, you will need to allocate more time than if you need to scan for a particular fact.
2. Be Selective
You don’t have time to read everything that you are allocated, and when you’re researching for an essay or paper, you can’t read every article you come across in depth. There simply isn’t enough time in the day!
However, you do need to know what you need to read in depth, and when it’s appropriate you can skim and scan. This is why it’s really important to consider your goals for reading.
Ask yourself what you need to look out for:
- Key questions or phrases
- Questions that you want to answer
- Definitions or descriptions
- Results or analyses
If you know why you’re reading and what you’re looking for, have a look at the abstract of the article, or the contents page of the book. This will give you a sense of whether this article or book is going to be relevant to you.
Next, skim read the text. Yes, I said skim read! When we skim read we are looking to see what the article or book is about: look at the headings, subheadings, major key words, the topic sentences of paragraphs. You want to get an idea of the general direction of the article: what is it about, what is it going to tell you?
Next, scan for important information. When we scan, we read very quickly, looking for key words and phrases that indicate important and relevant information. When we find them, we slow down again to see if they are useful.
Once you’ve done you’ve determined that the article is useful, you may need to go back and do some deep reading. This means reading what you’ve deemed to be relevant and important in detail, using strategies like note-taking.
I’m going to explain this process in much more detail in my upcoming blogs about reading strategies!
3. Ask Questions
A good reader asks themselves questions as they go. It helps us to switch from being passive readers, to active readers. Doing this, you can locate specific information, and start to figure out how the article is structured. This helps keep you engaged and also helps you keep track of what you might need to follow up on.
- What is the author’s aim?
- How are they trying to prove it?
- What methods do they use?
- Do these seem reasonable?
- Is there anything you don’t understand?
Try turning headings and subheadings into questions, or write a question in the margins that you think each paragraph answers. Seriously, if you’re ever stuck trying to understand an article, try focusing your attention onto specific questions. It really helps!
4. Analyze Your Reading
Analysing is about critical thinking. It means we need to start evaluating the text and consider what it means in connection with other ideas. At this stage, we continue asking questions of the text, but instead of trying to decipher what an article’s aim or argument is, we try to critique how well they are achieving it. This means asking things like:
- What is the author’s argument? What are they trying to prove?
- How does this fit with other readings/your lecture and tutorial knowledge?
- Do you agree with them? Why/why not?
- What problems might exist with their research?
- What assumptions or biases might the author have?
I have a whole blog coming soon on how to read critically, so this is just a very short summary.
5. Take Effective Notes
Taking notes of readings has all the same cognitive benefits as taking notes during a lecture. It is important for comprehension, memory, and for later study. But knowing what types of notes to take and when is hard. I used to have a terrible habit of taking notes about everything in a reading because I was so afraid that I would miss something important. I also didn’t necessarily understand why I was taking notes, or what the content of my notes even meant. That’s not particularly helpful! So, as a starting point:
- Keep your notes short and precise – what is essential?
- If you highlight, create a colour system or similar (and remember that if you highlight everything, you may as well highlight nothing!)
- Remember your purpose – how will these notes be helpful to you?
- Don’t just note what you see, try to add your own thoughts – tease out the ideas and assumptions
Again, I have a whole blog coming about how to do this properly, so check that out for more!
Remember, this is just the start! I have lots more tips about effective reading coming soon.
Another important thing to remember, just before I go, is that reading is something you will practice and get better at your whole uni career. There isn’t a one fix solution to reading! Be kind to yourself, and remember that this is a process!