Reading Strategically

Published: Tues., October 18, 2016

Reading demands for graduate students can be high. Between required and recommended or optional readings for their classes and research articles for their thesis or dissertation, graduate students can easily find themselves trying to read more pages than their schedule will allow. Learning to read efficiently is an essential skill for graduate students.

Consider Your Purpose

Before sitting down to read anything, consider why you are reading it. This will help determine what strategies would be most useful. Is this a reading for class? If so, will you be asked to complete an assignment on that reading? If you are reading an article to use in your thesis or dissertation, what do you hope to gain from that piece? Are you interested in their results, the methods they use, the studies they cite, or some combination of the three? How you plan to use the information in the reading should dictate how you read the article. If you are primarily interested in their findings, then you might consider skimming some of the other sections, but reading the methods and results sections thoroughly. If you are reading a text that you know you will discussed in class, you might focus on identifying the main ideas and any lingering questions, so that you'll be able to talk about those in class.

Reading Efficiently

Be realistic about what you need to read

It’s not uncommon for professors to list a number of recommended or optional readings on their syllabus. Generally, you are not expected to read all of these. You may find that some of these readings directly relate to your research topics and for those readings, it may be worth your time to read those articles thoroughly. Do not feel obligated to read the other articles if you do not have time.

Start with the abstract or introduction

Research articles can sometimes be difficult to read. Begin by reading through the abstract. This should help you decide if need or want to read the rest of the article and help you sort out easily the articles that are not relevant to your work. After reading the abstract, if you are still unsure if the article will be useful plan to read or skim the entire article.

Consider using the SQ3R method

Reading well the first time will prevent you from having to re-read an article. One method for effective reading is known as the SQ3R method. This stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review.

  • Survey: Glance at headings and skim the first and last paragraphs to see the structure of the reading and where it is going.
  • Question: Take the headings and turn them into questions to be answered through the reading. This will focus your attention on what you should be getting out of the reading.
  • Read: Read the each section focusing on looking for the answer to your question for that section. Read reflectively and think to yourself: what is the author trying to say here?
  • Recite: In your own words, recite your answers to the questions you initially posed.
  • Review: After finishing the entire piece, test your memory by asking yourself those questions again. Make sure to write this information down in your notes. Also, think about how this information fits with other information from class or potential applications of these ideas.

Taking Notes

notepad and pen
"Note Taking: Cornell Method" by Matt Cornock, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0"

Reading without taking notes is time wasted. Taking notes on your reading will help you process the information more deeply. In graduate school, the purpose of reading is not to learn definitions or simple facts, but instead to develop a deep understanding of concepts and to be able to apply those ideas to your work. To do that, you cannot simply passively read texts. Taking notes and annotating your texts while reading will help you think deeply about what you read. Good note taking will also save you time in the future. Marking useful quotes or annotating your readings well means you will not have to read that same text over again to find the main points.

One way to take notes is by annotating a text as you read it. Focus on marking main ideas or any questions you have as you read the text. If you use abbreviations, be consistent and make sure you note what those abbreviations mean. Taking notes, but not being able to understand them later, is just as problematic not taking notes at all. If you use a citation management program (e.g. Mendeley, RefWorks, EndNote, Zotero, etc.), include your notes in with the article citation. Later, when you are looking at a lengthy list of articles in the program, this will help you remember what was important or useful about that article or book.

If you take notes on a separate page and not on the text itself, your notes should be more detailed than annotations might be. Also, make sure that you keep these notes organized and clearly labeled. If you cannot find notes later or figure out which reading they go with, you will have to spend time re-reading that same text. Ask yourself questions as you read the text; these can be used to organize your notes. Some good questions to start with are:

  • What is the author trying to say here?
  • What are the implications of this idea?
  • How does this connect with other ideas or theories in the field?
  • How could this information be applied to my research?

For a research article, you might divide your notes into several sections: hypotheses or the purpose of the study, methods used, major findings, and any noteworthy articles referenced that might be useful for your research. For a textbook, you might focus on noting the main points the author made and define, in your own words, any significant terms the author uses.

Use underlining and highlighting sparingly. Highlighting should be used to draw your attention to a sentence or idea. If the whole page is highlighted, it will not be useful for you to find a quote or idea later. Focus on marking only the most important ideas. Typically, writers will use transitions or keywords to mark when they are defining a new idea, so use those as guideposts to identify key ideas to focus on.