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How to read in college

It is easy to think that reading is something we all learned how to do in childhood, once and for all. But in fact, reading is a skill that must be continually developed. Reading at the college level and beyond takes some practice, and it may be useful to discuss it a bit as I'm doing here. Some undergraduates come to my classes already possessing a high level of competence in reading, while others are less confident of their abilities, and tell me that they struggle with reading in various ways. This short essay is written with the latter group in mind, and more generally students taking courses in the social sciences and humanities.

As I often explain to students, reading gave me a certain amount of anxiety in my own undergraduate years. I would fret about whether I read too slowly. I felt easily distracted while reading. I experimented with different ways of marking and annotating what I read, sometimes with hideous results that still mar my books. I was never convinced that I had even found a good place to sit and do my readings; I prowled all levels of Uris and Olin, experimenting with cubicles in the stacks, well-lit reference rooms, lounges with comfy chairs, reading rooms with flat desks and those with slanted ones.

I gradually learned that, for reading anything at all serious, I need a quiet place without music or conversation, or else I need earplugs. Also, especially when I'm tired, I use the technique I was taught in elementary school in the Netherlands: put a bookmark or 3" x 5" index card on the text, sliding it down the page so that it always lies underneath the line you are reading. Finally, I like to put my feet up on something so that my back muscles can relax.

Once you have figured out your own preferred environment, posture and so forth, consider the following.

Think of reading as an active process. When (for instance) watching a movie or television, it's easy to sit back and experience what's taking place in front of your eyes in a passive way. And afterward, you might well feel that you fully understood it and have no trouble talking about what you saw. It's possible to take a similar approach to reading, but chances are you won't be getting much out of it. To read effectively at a college level you have to interact with the text in an active way as you read it.

What does this mean? In part this means extracting the main ideas from the text. By "extract" I mean that you identify them and pull them out. Some kinds of work (such as articles in certain journals) are prefaced with an abstract, and sometimes an author comes right out and says what he/she thinks the main point is. Often there are no such crutches provided, though, and at any rate you still need to make your own assessment of the piece.

It is always useful to ask yourself questions like these about what you read:

I want to stress how important it is to capitalize on the time you've spent reading by writing down the answers to at least some of the above questions. Think of it this way: You're not quite done yet when you get to the end of the reading. You passed your eyes over most or all of the words in the text, you turned through one page after another, and now the final paragraph has elapsed like a clock ticking past 2:19 in a class that ends at 2:20. But hang on a second. Whatever you read is now warmed up in your mind, you're basically familiar with it, it's become accessible to you. But have you really gotten what you need out of it? How much will you remember the next day or a few days later when you're sitting in the classroom? Or weeks later when you're preparing for an exam? Typically, this is the point at which just a little bit of further work on your part will go a long way.

You may find it useful to mark up or underline your readings as you do them (assuming they aren't library books.) Whether or not you do that, take a few minutes to write down the answers to the key questions above, and any discussion/review questions that you've been given. Review your notes quickly before class. You will be much better prepared to talk about or take a quiz on the material for having done this.

How fast should you be reading? There is no one answer to this question. People read at different paces. Some texts may be especially interesting to you and you'll feel like immersing yourself in them in a more leisurely way. Some will require more time because they are difficult. And of course, occasionally you may find yourself strapped for time, though you should plan in advance to minimize these occasions. No matter how quickly you go through a reading, take the time to spell out the main ideas in your notes — it may well be better to go through some sections lightly while still trying your best to process the piece in its entirety, as opposed to reading one part thoroughly but not taking any time to digest.

There are times when it's worth carefully working through what an author is saying in a particularly challenging line or passage, but there is also such a thing as getting bogged down in detail. Much of what you read will not have been written with the primary purpose of teaching you what you need to know. The authors are often writing for other people like them, other specialists on the topic at hand. They may refer to other work or theories, employ fancy words, specialized terms or academic jargon, and spend paragraphs or pages delving into great detail on a point where all you need to know is the main gist, at most. You have to decide whether it's worth picking through this or perhaps searching reference sources in order to make it clear, or whether it's best just to push through. This is part of the art of reading!

Bear in mind that you'll get better and faster at reading work on a particular topic or within a particular academic discipline the more of it you do.

— Benjamin L. Read, February 24, 2008. Comments are welcome.