Three ESSENTIAL reading strategies for University

Today, I'm going to describe how to read. Yes, you heard me correctly, how to read.

Come off it Rachael, I already know how to read. I’m at University, duh! Why are you telling me this?

Relax. I know you CAN read, but today I’m going to share with you three specific strategies you can use at University to speed up your reading AND gain more relevant information.

Reading and research is such an important aspect of University study. Without quality input (scholarly books and articles) you won’t have a quality output (strong and well-reasoned essays). Yet few students know how to read efficiently and effectively.

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It’s not your fault. In schools and colleges, students are taught how to read with speed and fluency, but are rarely shown any reading strategies. Knowing multiple strategies gives you the flexibility to choose the most appropriate approach depending on what you need to gain from your reading. This flexibility becomes especially important when you want to accomplish the quantity and quality of reading that’s expected from you at University.

I’ve covered the importance of reading well in previous posts including:

1.   How to get clear about why are you reading,

2.  What the most credible and reliable sources are,

3.  How to set up a system to record and retrieve your information.

If you’ve not read these already, take the time to check them out – they’ll put today’s conversation into context. If you have read them, then I hope you've gained tons of value and more importantly – acted on them. Taking action is important!

Take-action-on-university-reading

We've already talked a little about why you shouldn't read in the same way you’d read for pleasure. But why is that? The biggest mistake people make at University is to read everything word for word. The problem is compounded by taking detailed notes or copying out large sections of the textbook or article.  This approach seldom works. It's a passive form of reading where the information just flows into your mind and out again, without it being retained in your memory.

If you want to remember information, then you need to read actively and with a clear purpose in mind. You MUST process the information so it goes into your memory and you learn from it.

The other reason why you shouldn’t read everything word for word is because it’s just not physically possible to do that quantity of reading! If you’re currently working through your reading list book by book, word for word, then you may have experienced the sinking feeling that you’ll be sat reading forever or until someone discovers you in the corner of the library covered in cobwebs like Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations.

You’re not alone in trying to read everything word for word. Many students fall victim to Reading FOMO – the fear they’ll miss out something critical if they don’t read absolutely every word. This is related to Writing FOMO, where students feel the need to include absolutely everything in their essay because they fear they’ll lose marks if they leave something out. I get that because I felt like that too when I was an undergraduate.

You have my permission to stop.

If you are waiting for someone to say you do not have to read every word, then you've got it. I'm giving you permission today: you do not have to read everything word for word, either on your reading list or in the wider literature. Go on, breathe a sigh of relief!

But what exactly should you do instead? Read on because I’m going to show you three reading strategies: Study, Skim, and Scroll. By the time, you’ve finished this article you’ll know three different ways to read and when to practice each of these three strategies. But first here’s a story to serve as a mnemonic (an aid to your memory) …

Did you ever learn first aid as a child? I did. When I was a Girl Guide I was taught how to deal with all sorts of accidents, emergencies, and difficult situations. One response that stayed with me is what to do if somebody catches fire.

I don't mean catch fire as in “whoa, Rachael’s really on fire today!” when I turn out two thousand words of top quality content. I mean how to react if somebody is LITERALLY on fire.

The reason I remember how to react is because we were taught to ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’. If we were ever faced with someone in flames we should stop the person, drop them to the ground and roll them to put the fire out.

Thankfully, I’ve never needed to use this knowledge, but one of the reasons why this information has stayed with me for over 30 years is because of that short phrase – Stop, Drop and Roll - it's so memorable!

I've developed a similarly memorable phrase to help you to recall the three ways you can read material for your university studies. Except for this time, it's Study, Skim, and Scroll.

Get ready for Study, Skim, and Scroll to become your new BFF!

Once you understand and master these three reading strategies, you’ll be able to flex between them depending on the purpose of your reading:

1.    You can take time to STUDY a specific section of a book or article in detail when it’s highly relevant to the essay question or if you want to quote the author

2.    You can quickly SKIM through a chapter or article to get an overview of the content and to pick up the main points

3.    You can SCROLL down the page to find a key word, name, concept, diagram or table or look for an answer.

The key to using these strategies is to be conscious of WHY you are reading and then choose the best method to use. Remember, fortune favours the prepared mind.

Let’s take them one at a time and I’ll show you what to do and when to use it.

Study

Okay, so having spent the last 800 words explaining why you should NOT read your study texts word for word, I’m now going to describe a strategy that does just that. But there’s a caveat…it’s only for use in certain circumstances.

Study, as the name suggests, involves an in-depth and detailed scrutiny of the material. The purpose is to form a clear understanding of the text and to begin to analyse it. You should use this strategy to read specific paragraphs or chapters that you’ve already identified as highly relevant or foundational to your topic. An example might be the material from your course textbook.

It’s important that you read ACTIVELY when you are studying the text in detail. If you read passively then you’ll find your mind wandering and you won’t retain the information. A tried and trusted method is the SQ3R reading technique from Francis Robinson’s book Effective Study, first published in the 1940s.  This technique has five steps: Survey, Question, Read, Recall and Review (the 3 Rs). There’s such a wealth of information to share about the SQ3R technique, so I’ll just cover the main points today.

Survey the whole passage before you start reading. What are the headings and subheadings? Are there statistics or diagrams? Is there an introduction, main body, and conclusion? Get a feel for the structure.

Question the material. What general questions about the text do you want to answer? What specific questions do you want to answer relating to your essay? Developing your questions is the key to active reading.

Read the material while actively looking for answers to the questions you've created. Active reading and engaging with the material in this way helps you to understand and retain the information you’re reading.

Recall the information you’ve read. The act of retrieving it from memory helps to cement the information into your long-term memory. You can either recite the information or write it down in your own words.

Review the information you have recalled. Was there anything you missed out? Was there anything that you didn’t fully understand? Go back and do the Read, Recall and Review steps again until you’re confident.

It might seem a lot of work but the SQ3R technique is a total game-changer and has saved me tons of time and essay marks over the years. I encourage you to give it a go because I believe after you’ve done it once, you’ll never look back. If you learn to do SQ3R well then you should gain a good understanding of your study material and begin to be able to analyse the arguments, gaps in the literature, assumptions made by scholars and what approaches and questions haven’t been covered.

Skim

Our second strategy is skim reading. You’ve probably learned to skim read already, even if you don’t know it by that name. It’s the technique to choose when you want to familiarise yourself with a chapter or an article and get a quick overview.

Skimming literally means to go over the surface. Imagine skimming a stone across the water – it doesn’t travel along the entire surface, it skips over it. And this is the same with skim reading. Once you have discovered a chapter or section that looks relevant, then skip across the text quickly. The purpose of skim reading is to develop an overall impression of the material, rather than get an in-depth understanding or critique the text in any way. Skimming will assist you to identify which paragraphs and sections require more detailed study and discard books or articles which are not relevant without investing any more time in them.

The best way to record information while skim reading is to write a brief summary or synopsis in your own words. You can capture this on an index card or in a spreadsheet as I describe in How to record and retrieve information. You do not need to take copious or detailed notes; skim reading is all about gaining an overall appreciation of the material.

Scroll

You scroll to look for a specific piece of information or keywords in a book or article. It's like scrolling down an email or web page on your phone looking for something. This strategy is useful to quickly determine if a book or article is relevant and where the pertinent material is located. If you want to keep momentum and not get drawn into detailed reading, keep your finger moving down the text: it will focus you on the search for key words.

You can use this method in many situations. To scroll down the:

  • results on the library catalogue search page to find relevant books or articles
  • contents list or index page to see whether the keywords or concept that you're looking for is included in the book
  • relevant chapter until you find the key word, phrase or concept

Once you've found the right information you can record it by writing the reference and page number on an index card (for online information) or by adding a bookmark, coloured tab or highlight to the page (if you have the book or journal in hard copy). Scrolling is the first strategy to employ if you’re starting to gather information for an essay because it helps to identify what you're going to skim read or study later.

These are the three strategies that I use to complete all my University reading and to make sure I’m up to date with the latest research in my area of study. By choosing the right technique for each stage of research you’re maximising your time and the chances of finding relevant and useful material.

While you can use each technique when it is most appropriate, if you are beginning a reading list or a search for information then I recommend moving from scrolling to skimming and finally to studying. This approach takes you from a high-level overview of the literature to a detailed and in-depth appraisal of the material.

You will discover that academic reading is not a linear process and you will move backward and forward through the three strategies as you progress through your reading and grow in confidence with the techniques.

The important point to remember is to keep practicing and remain mindful of which technique you are using and why.  Keeping your purpose in mind is the best way to stay in an active reading frame of mind.

Have you been reading everything word for word up until now? Which of these strategies have you been using already? And which will you be adding to your repertoire? Tell me in the comments below!