How to read with purpose at Uni + three reasons why it's crucial

I'm going to talk about academic reading today. It's the first of a series of posts I'll be writing about reading and research over the next few weeks.

Why cover academic reading?

Because you've told me that's what you struggle with the most! In a recent survey I conducted with University students, 28% of the students who took part said reading and research was THE most difficult part of the whole essay writing process.

It was the number one problem cited across all years, but it was especially high among first-year undergraduates.

So, let's have a candid and truthful conversation about why having a system for your academic reading is crucial. Then I'll introduce the method I use to deal with my academic reading in the smartest and most efficient way.


I’ve used the reading system I'm going to share with you in this upcoming series of blog posts for years now. It's worked for my Undergraduate, Postgraduate and Doctoral study and it's helped me to research and plan my teaching. IT WORKS! It's a system that empowers you and doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re totally DROWNING in books and articles! Here's the first rule:

Whatever you do, stop reading like you’re reading for pleasure

Academic reading means reading for the specific purpose of completing an essay, assignment, or presentation or to prepare before attending a lecture. You can't approach that sort of reading in the way that you’d casually browse the internet, or read the latest paperback novel cover to cover.

Because - and I told you I would be candid - If you do it will hurt your progress, your confidence and ultimately your results.

“But wait a minute, that’s how all my friends tackle their reading…”

I know, I know, but that doesn’t make it the right approach.

Are you ready to hear why?

Because academic reading is like a laser beam. It needs to be tightly focussed, pinpointing just what you need. It's not like general reading which is more like the beam of a torch dimly lighting up a whole area.

Think about it:

You spent HOURS or even DAYS reading textbooks and articles from cover to cover. You write pages and pages of notes. And then when you sit down to write your essay or assignment you STILL find you have no relevant material.

That is stupid. Plain stupid.

Let me be clear: you're not stupid (and I'm not that rude!) It's the method that's stupid. Most people draw on their previous experience when faced with a new task. I certainly do. And for most of us, our main experience of reading is reading for pleasure.

It’s no surprise that, just like a computer with out-of-date software installed, our brains automatically run ‘Reading for Pleasure 1.0’ instead of ‘Academic Reading 2.0’. 

Reading a ton of different books and articles from start to finish, even if your tutor recommends them on your reading list, wastes your TIME and ENERGY.

The pile of books and articles you are working so hard to read through right now? Put them back on the shelf and close down the browser pages. Then step away.

Start making REAL progress with a BETTER approach.

I’m going to show you exactly how to improve your academic reading over the next few weeks. I strongly believe this is an area where I can help you get better results in a short space of time. I've talked about the importance of reading with purpose previously, but I'm going to explain three reasons why reading without having a clearly defined purpose is so wasteful. 


1. Ploughing through material that’s irrelevant affects your progress by taking time and energy away from reading the RIGHT material

Is there value to be had from reading everything on your reading list or the neighbouring books on the University library shelf? Yes, of course, there is. But that won’t give you the biggest ‘bang for your buck’, as the Americans say. It’s hard work to read through whole textbooks and it's unsustainable. If you value your time (and who doesn’t) you should be spending it reading THE most appropriate and relevant materials, in an efficient and effective way.

You need to FOCUS your energy and time and you can’t do that if you’re constantly reading for the sake of reading. I know it often feels good to be busy, but if the activity you’re busy with doesn't serve you well then it’s not a productive use of your time!

If you’ve ever read all day, but experienced the sinking feeling that what you’ve read is not relevant, then don’t worry, I’ve got you. After you read the articles I'll be posting over the next few weeks, you’ll never have one of those days again.


2. Struggling with reading affects your confidence, stunts your growth as a student and limits your potential

If you have NO guiding principles to help you navigate your University reading then your performance will be sub-optimal. If your confidence and self-esteem are tied to your results, what happens when you struggle with your reading? Do you feel like you've let yourself down? Do you wonder if you’re cut out for higher education? Do you conclude that you are not as good as everyone thought you were?

This confidence issue is one of THE most important reasons to improve the reading and research stage of your essays and assignments. If you want to remain confident during your student years, you need to have a clear idea of what type of reading is required and how you can achieve it.

Low grades at the start of your University degree (or at any time during your degree) can badly affect your self-esteem. You won’t learn as effectively if you are in a low mood. You’ll also be less likely to take advantage of new opportunities. Fear of failure and lack of confidence can seriously erode your future prospects too.


3. Disordered reading affects your results at a time when demands on students are higher than ever

The bar has risen sharply for students. The increase in Universities and student numbers means that competition for grades is fierce. It’s simple supply and demand - there are more students, paying more than ever before, and employers get to pick and choose – which usually means those with the highest grades.

If you adopt the wrong approach to your work, you’ll work hard for little return. Struggling along with reading that lacks purpose will waste months of your time. You can’t afford to waste time and money retaking failed modules, or worse getting a poor final degree result.

This is also the slowest and worst way to get going as a Fresher. Even new University students can make great progress with the right approach to their reading and research.


I hear about problems caused by purposeless reading all the time

Recently I spoke with a student who was struggling with writing her University assignments. She talked about the amount of time it took to read all the books and articles before she’d even begun to sit down and write.

“I thought I’d be able to do a degree with no trouble because I got great A-level results, but however much time I spend reading I still find myself staring at a blank page when my essay is due.”

Ouch…that's tough, but can you see her problem? This was a bright and motivated student who worked hard and was trying to do the right thing but getting nowhere.

Basically, her point was that she could keep reading and reading for days and still feel she hadn’t read enough to start writing her essay. As the deadline got nearer she felt all that she could do was read more.

Her story made me sad because I see many students in a similar predicament.

Here’s the thing:

It’s not your fault. You can’t tackle your University reading effectively because the strategies and tactics you’ve learned so far in your education may not be fit for the purpose.

School and college predominantly adopt a model where the teacher has the authority and a good student is rewarded for reading everything, memorising facts and figures and then recalling them in exams. University expects the student to engage with the tutor and challenge the sources they read, and a good student in a University environment is the one who begins to push past the boundaries of current knowledge.

At University you can't get away with reheating the ready meal your teacher gave you in the lecture and serving it up attractively. University requires you to be a chef gathering the prime, juiciest ingredients and mixing them together to create a meal that impresses. The question is: Are you ready to put your apron on?

The old way:

Read a TON of material, make copious notes, fill all your available time, but then find you have no material you can use in your essay. Stress, maybe stress some more, and then blame yourself for being a rubbish student.

The new way:

Read the RIGHT academic texts. Quality, not quantity. Use the rest of the time to complete your assignments, engage in extra-curricular activities and generally enjoy your University days!

The system I developed uses a series of simple, but insightful questions to challenge the way you approach your reading. We'll get into the detail of the system next time and I'll show you EXACTLY how you can put it to work straight away with your own reading and research.

In the meantime, let me know what you're struggling with in your reading right now. Tell me in the comments below or post it in my Facebook group for students - Study Write Now.