Reading Effectively


Reading is central to success in higher education. Many of the problems students face with their academic work (including referencing, critical analysis and developing an academic style) stem from lack of appropriate reading.

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Where do I start?

Start with your module handbook. In it you will find a reading list. This is a list of the publications your tutor thinks will help you throughout the year. You are NOT expected to read them all from cover to cover now (if ever) so DON’T rush off to the library and get them all out (someone will have got there before you anyway!).

A huge pile of books on your desk is almost as unhelpful as none. The key to being an effective reader is being a selective reader.

Why are you reading?

Reading should always be purposeful even if it isn’t always enjoyable. Always keep in mind why you are reading something, if you don’t know why stop.

During your course you may have to read for different reasons – to prepare for a lecture or seminar for example, or for a particular assignment. Make sure you are clear about what you need to find out and only read texts that appear to contain the information you need. Remember that the text was not written for you and your purpose so it will also contain lots of information you don’t need.  You need to develop the confidence to decide what is useful and what is not.

Reading around your subject

The best way to get the most out of your course is to read, even when you don’t have to. If you are lucky, your tutors will have identified some key reading to do throughout the course (look at your course programme in your module handbook). Often this will be an article or a chapter from a book that will help you to get your head around the key areas before a lecture. Doing a small amount of relevant reading each week really pays off in the end and is much less daunting than a pile of books.

Reading for an assignment

Always take your time to read the assignment question a few times before you go anywhere near a library (or search engine). Think about what kind of information you will need to answer the question and what your focus is going to be. Most essay titles are very broad so you need to decide which areas you want to focus on. Don’t waste time researching topic areas (however fascinating) that are not relevant to the essay. If you are unsure always check with your tutor and if you need help tracking down particular sources (i.e. electronic journals), ask for help at the enquiries desk in the Library.

Once you have selected the sources that seem to be relevant to your assignment, you will need to skim through them. Reading everything word by word is likely to be a waste of time. You need to be selective in what you read otherwise you will quickly get demotivated and/or overwhelmed by too much information.

How should I approach academic texts?

When you start reading around an unfamiliar subject, the ideas and language may be difficult at first. Read the most basic text you can find on the topic to familiarise yourself with the main issues and vocabulary.

  • Use the contents page. This will guide you to sections which are most relevant to your topic.
  • Read abstracts/introductions/conclusions first – these contain the key information and will help you decide if it is worth reading on.
  • Use the writer’s bibliography and references – these give details of the sources the author has consulted and can help you to move beyond the basic reading list.
  • If you are really struggling with a text put it aside. Find someone else who has written on this area – not all academics have an impenetrable style, but some do.

Taking notes

  • You need to take notes while you are reading. First of all you will need a record of what you have read for your references and secondly, you need to process the information actively, not just ‘read’ it (see the reference record guide on LearningSpace).
  • Write down all the publishing details before you start: author/s, initials, publication date, publisher, edition etc.
  • Sum up rather than copy chunks of text. This will help you understand and remember what you are reading.
  • Make a note of any related arguments you have come across in other reading – does this author agree/disagree/elaborate?
  • Jot down any interesting thoughts, questions or queries that come up, discuss them with your tutor/other students/family members/pets.
  • Pick out quotes that say something you would like to say yourself. Copy them carefully and make a note of the source and page number.
  • Re-read the title of the assignment on a regular basis. Every time you
  • come across a new idea check if it can be used in this essay. Don’t get side-tracked.
  • Colour-code your notes – this will help you find relevant information/quotes more quickly and easily when you want to make a point.
  • Try and read a range of sources – just one website won’t do. Try and include books, journals and reliable on-line resources.
  • Use an App, such as Evernote, to organise your notes.