January 19, 2015

Strategies for University Reading

Sharon Stearns, Student Learning Advisor at the University of Alberta Student Success Centre, shares her strategies for tackling your assigned readings this semester. 

The beginning of the new term is the perfect time to re-evaluate your approach to reading assignments. Most university reading is found in non-fiction textbooks, whose style may be clear and straightforward yet less than engaging. Thus, you have to develop a reading system that enables you to emerge from a text with a solid grasp of its content, no matter how dense. It is important to accept that reading non-fiction requires a fundamentally different approach than reading the latest, greatest novel. In general, you should consider a single reading assignment as being comprised of distinct stages and driven by specific strategies.

The first stage is the preview stage, intended to provide an overall sense of the content to be read. Because we learn through making connections, it is essential to activate your prior knowledge as well as to get a sense of the internal logic or connections — key ideas versus supporting details — of what you are preparing to read. Some recommended preview strategies include
  • skimming chapter titles, headings, subheadings, key terms, learning objectives, visual aids and their captions, introductory statements, summary statements, and review questions;
  • considering what you already know about the content you discover and making connections;
  • mapping out the conceptual relationships between the main points; and
  • asking questions and making predictions about what will be covered, how it will be connected, and how it relates to the overall course objectives.
Next is the reading for comprehension stage. In order to read actively with focus and intent, think of yourself as engaging in a dialogue with the text, asking questions and seeking answers. Now you will want to vary your approach according to your grasp of the material and its complexity. Some texts will require careful and methodical reading while others can be skimmed or scanned. All the while, you should stop periodically to consolidate and review the concepts you just read. Strategies to focus comprehension include the following:
  • breaking the assignment into chunks and alternating between reading and consolidating. Read for no more than 20 minutes before stopping to consolidate your understanding and recall;
  • posing questions—transform every heading and subheading into study questions—as you read to help focus your concentration and identify key ideas;
  • mapping or outlining the chunk, including main ideas and supporting details;
  • identifying the rhetorical pattern used by the author; and
  • annotating your text in the margins or on post-it notes to capture key terms, definitions, relationships, and process steps.
You should begin to fix the new information into your memory during a review stage. Every time you practice retrieval of the key ideas and major concepts, you strengthen your learning.  Review activities to consider are
  • mentally reciting key definitions, steps, and relationships;
  • writing out answers using the study questions provided or that you created; and/or
  • filling in the details on the concept map you made during the preview stage.
Finally, do not consider yourself finished before scheduling your next review of this material. Several reviews over an extended period of time are necessary to consolidate information into your long-term memory. For more information and help with reading strategies, check out these workshops or schedule an individual appointment.