Study Methods 1: Strategic reading

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When you start a higher education programme, you may have experience from upper secondary school or from a job that you can build on when it comes to reading and preparing to study.

Whether the practices and habits you already have are good or bad can’t be assessed objectively. However, if you find that you can’t keep up with the volume of reading or remember enough from your reading, then it is worth considering whether you can improve your reading strategies. You can learn to be a good reader, and the more you practise, the better you will be.

To find out what aspects of your reading habits you would like to focus on developing, you can start by answering the questions here. You could also answer the questions in your study group and share your experiences with each other.

Questions about your study reading  
How do you read when you study?
e.g.:
From the first page onwards?
A thorough reading or a skim- or scan-reading?
In good time or at the last minute?
Do you read all texts the same way?
How do you plan your study reading?  
What time of day do you read best?
Where do you like to read?
Do you take notes when you read?
What disturbs you most when you read?  
What helps you to remember what you have read?
What is the best thing about reading?
What is the most difficult thing about reading when you study?
How do you use your study group or fellow students for preparation and study reading?
These questions are inspired by the book: Jørgensen, P. S. (2007). Studielæsning på videregående uddannelser: Læsestrategier og læseteknikker. Samfundslitteratur.

Before you read – planning your reading

As a student, you often want to do everything really well and so you try to read everything on the syllabus. It can feel a little overwhelming.

Many students also believe that all texts have to be read in the same way and thoroughly, which can mean that they quickly fall behind. If you prioritise your reading and read the texts in different ways, you can save time and become both better and more focused in your reading.

Reading for your studies takes time, and so, you need to set aside time for it. Plan when you want to read and what you want to prioritise reading first.

Experiment with reading at different times of the day. When do you find it easiest to focus on learning new things and concentrating on reading? You can also consider where you read best. Do you have peace and quiet at home or can you study better at the library or in a reading room?

It can also be a good idea to find a reading companion who you can meet and read with. That way, you hold each other accountable to do the reading, even if you are just sitting next to each other in the meantime.

Pre-reading

Instead of starting on the first page and reading on from there, start your reading with a pre-reading.

With a pre-reading, you get an overview of the text you are to read. It helps you to bring your own prior knowledge into play and better decide how you want to read the text. A pre-reading is a quick glimpse of the overview-creating elements of a text.

If the text is a book, look at:

  • Front cover
  • Back cover and blurb
  • Contents
  • Foreword or preface
  • Headings
  • Figures, images, graphs and models

If the text is an article, look at:

  • Abstract/summary
  • Introduction
  • Conclusion
  • Headings, sub-headings
  • Figures, images, graphs and models

Once you have an overview of the text’s structure and contents, consider the purpose of your reading:

  • What are you going to use the text for?
  • What would you like to get out of your reading? 

The following considerations can help you focus your reading even further: 

  • Are there strategic reading questions for the text?
  • Has your teacher emphasised what you should pay particular attention to?
  • What knowledge do you already have on the matter?
  • How does the text fit into the subject or module as a whole? 

A pre-reading can be done in 5 minutes, which is much faster than reading a text from beginning to end, and you get a lot more out of your subsequent reading.

You are then ready to decide whether the text should be skimmed or read more thoroughly.

Reading exercises

Depending on your education programme, you will encounter many different types of texts during your studies: books, articles, reports, manuals, legal material and internship/work practice descriptions. Have you considered whether any of these should be read in a particular way?

Consider the type of text you are to read based on its Form, Language and Function

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How is this text built up?
  • How is this text written?
  • What is this text to be used for?

You can get more out of your reading if you keep in mind that not all texts can be accessed in the same way. For example, if a text is written in complex language and contains many difficult concepts, it may be necessary to read the text more thoroughly. Other texts are easier to read and can be skim-read, so you get the most important information, and afterwards you can focus on reading the most relevant passages in-depth.

When you are reading about a new topic or need to familiarise yourself with new material, it’s a good idea to focus on terms, ideas and concepts in the text.

When reading an article or report, never read it from beginning to end. Start with a pre-reading and focus on the abstract, introduction and conclusion. Depending on the purpose of your reading, you can then focus on reading more into the method, analysis or discussion sections afterwards. The most important information and the most important findings will always be described in the abstract and conclusion. Remember: an academic assignment is structured in the same way as a scientific article. Once you know what you want to get out of the reading, you can start reading. Choose the reading style that best suits your purpose, the time you have available and the type of text.

While you read

Here you can read about different reading methods and how they can be applied. Always start with a pre-reading.

Read from the outside in

It’s always a good idea to read from the outside in – that is, to start by reading the beginning/introduction and the end/conclusion.

This is true whether it is an article, a book, a chapter or a section.

By reading from the ends and towards the middle, you get a better overview of where the text would like to go. Once you have read the conclusion first, you can see how the different points build up to the conclusion of this particular text during the rest of your reading. This gives you a better understanding of both the contents and argumentation in the text.


Skimming

Skimming is superficial reading that gives the reader an overview of the text’s structure and contents. Skimming is a useful tool for orienting yourself in a lot of material in little time.

You skim by letting your eyes glide quickly over the pages and only reading the “most important” things. For example,:

  • Headings and subheadings
    • Beginnings and endings of sections
    • Words in italics or that are bold or underlined
    • Keywords that are used repeatedly
    • Text boxes
    • Bullet points

Sometimes a skim is enough for you to get the core message of a text, at other times, you will need to continue with a normal or deep reading.

You can use skimming to investigate, e.g., whether a text is relevant to read in connection with writing an assignment or to get an overview of the day’s topic before the lesson.

Normal reading    

Normal reading is a reading method whereby you read the entire contents from start to finish. You read at a pace where you neither dwell on sentences nor skip passages. Normal reading is good for introductory texts, where you would like to gain knowledge of the entire contents.

Deep reading    

Deep reading is very thorough reading that can take a long time. It is suitable for reading complex texts or passages, where you need to be able to subsequently explain the contents in detail.

It is a reading method where you both have to dwell on the concepts and reflect on whether you have really understood the points.



Selective reading

If you have a specific purpose for your reading, you can choose the selective reading method. This is where you skim for the most relevant passages in the text and then read them thoroughly.

This type of reading is, e.g., keeping an eye out for keywords and concepts or finding information on a specific topic as you read.

The descriptions of the different reading methods are based on the book: Jørgensen, P. S. (2007). Studielæsning på videregående uddannelser: Læsestrategier og læseteknikker. Samfundslitteratur.

All reading methods require practise, so don’t let yourself be disheartened if the reading isn’t easy from the get-go. The more you read, the better you become at it. It is also quite normal to apply several reading methods to the same text.

Another challenge may be having to read texts in Danish or English. Here you need to know that it gets better when you start to know the subject terms from your study in both Danish and English. Thankfully, you can apply the same methods.

If you are to read a whole new topic, it may be a good idea to start with texts that provide an overview, e.g., textbooks, encyclopaedias or more popular science texts. Once you have understood the core of the topic, you can move on to reading the more scientific texts, e.g., theory books and research articles.

If you have difficulty understanding complex texts, see if you can find other sources, e.g., at the library, on Google or on YouTube that explains it in a different way.

When writing assignments, however, it is important to work with texts that have a higher academic level, so it’s best not to only use the introductory texts.

Active reading

To get the most out of your reading, read actively. Active reading is about activating the information you read so that you remember it better. For example, you can read actively by preparing strategic reading questions for the text, which are then answered during or after the reading. These types of questions can also be a starting point for taking notes when reading.

Choose the questions that are relevant to your text or come up with more questions yourself.

What is the core or most important message of the text?
What concepts are introduced?
What would the author of the text like the reader to know?
How does the author argue for their message?
Which section is the most relevant for me right now?
How can I relate the content of the text to my future practice in a job?
If I were to boil the contents of the text down to 3-5 sentences, what would they be?
How does this text fit in with the other reading?
Is there anything that is still unclear to me? 

Another way to read actively is to read with so-called “reading glasses”. For example, you choose to read the text with critical glasses and consider how the argumentation is connected, or with theory glasses, where you consider how the text fits into a theoretical conceptual framework from your study. This helps to focus your reading so you don’t just read at random.

Another great way to activate your reading is to take notes. You could say that reading is breathing in and writing is breathing out. When you take notes, a learning process automatically takes place, as you select the most important things, reformulate them and create connections.

Did you know?

Research shows that one of the best ways to learn the contents of a text is to read it, retell it to yourself, and then skim the text again.

McDaniel, M. A., Howard, D. C., & Einstein, G. O. (2009). The Read-Recite-Review Study Strategy: Effective and Portable. Psychological Science, 20(4), 516–522

Motivation

It can be challenging to keep track of the amount of texts, to concentrate for longer periods of time and to keep yourself motivated to read.

If you have difficulty maintaining an overview, it can be a good idea to plan your reading. Set aside time in a weekly schedule or diary so you know exactly where and when to read. Then you can spread the texts out over the week according to the deadline, the degree of difficulty or another factor.

How long a person can concentrate on reading varies from person to person, but it is also an ability you can practise and train. Research shows that people can work intensely concentrated between 1-4 hours a day. By reading in short, intense stretches and then taking a short break, you can set a good rhythm for your reading and practise concentrating. With time and training, you can then study intensively for a longer period of time at a time.

You can either set aside 50 minutes and then take a break so that you work in one long intensive stretch or you can alternate between concentrating on working for 25 minutes and then taking a break of 5 minutes. This is called the Pomodoro technique.

Kickstart your study reading with these tools: 

  1. Non-stop writing. Set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes where you have to write without stopping. You could, e.g., write about what you would like answers to, what you already know about the topic, what you expect from the text or what you are going to use it for. After the 5 minutes, your brain is ready to read.
  2. Spend two minutes finding an angle that you think is really interesting. What are you interested in in your studies? Can this angle be used for anything related to the text you need to read? For example, if you are passionate about a specific target group or a specific type of task, consider how the text will be able to help you in that regard.
  3. Reward yourself when you have read a specific number of pages. 

After you have read – remember what you read

If you set down the text immediately after you have finished reading it and start something else, you won’t remember the contents as well as if you had spent some time recalling the contents. Here are a few suggestions for how:

  • Answer strategic reading questions
  • Read headings, speak aloud and tell yourself what you now know on the subject
  • Follow up on things you are unsure of. You could ask your study group or your teacher, for instance 
  • Write a brief summary of the text’s most important points 
  • Make a list of new terms and concepts and what they mean
  • If you took notes, read them and write a summary at the end.

In addition to processing the text on your own, you can also do it in your study group. Here is a list of useful activities:

Play devil’s advocate

Agree to read the same text, but with different reading glasses. For example, one person reads the text with critical glasses and find weaknesses in the argumentation while another has to find the strengths. Other glasses could be:

  • How does this text fit into the subject/theory/our assignment?
  • How can I put the contents of this text into practice?

You then discuss the text based on your different readings when you meet in the group.

5 questions for the professor

Everyone writes 5 questions for the day’s text. They could be clarifying questions in relation to concepts or more abstract questions relating to the rest of the subject/course.

You can either answer the questions together or hand them out and write down answers to each other’s questions.

Create a mind map

Create a mind map together where you plot the most important points from the text. Remember to include page numbers so you can find the relevant passages in the text later.

Explain it to me like I’m 5

Read a text and prepare a short presentation for your study group. The exercise is about explaining the message of the text and most important points so simply that even an outsider (or a five-year-old) would be able to understand it. Not only do we always learn more by having to explain something to others, but it is also a good exercise in simplifying complex things.

Udarbejdet af: VIA Bibliotek, VIA University College

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