November 03, 2016

How To Get Through All Your Reading

Struggling to get through your class readings? Mebbie Bell, Mebbie Bell, Director of the Student Success Centre, shares her strategies to help tackle any amount of reading.

Many students feel overwhelmed by the readings they have to finish for each class. They become easily frustrated — and bored — by aimless reading that seems to go on for hours without any clear purpose. And, in fact, we are less efficient and more distracted when we are not sure why we are reading. Thinking strategically about what, when, how, and why you read can help to maximize your efficiency.

WHAT & WHY: Define your reading goals.
Thinking about why you are reading and which components you need to learn helps you to make much better use of your time. To get focused, answer the following questions for each of your courses: What do I need to read? And, why am I reading?
  • Take your cue from your instructor. What exactly does the instructor want you to know? Sometimes your textbook is a reference source in which you look up missed information, while at other times you need detailed knowledge. So, do you need to know your text in detail, or just have an overall understanding? Or, should you focus solely on specific components, such as examples, sidebars, or definitions? Is the material "testable"? Do you need to contribute to a class discussion or incorporate the material into an assignment?
  • Itemize your tasks. Make a list of all readings that you need to complete for all of your courses. Without a clear sense of what you have to read, your reading sessions will be aimless — and seem endless. 
  • Ask for guidance. If you are not sure of your reading goal(s), talk to your instructor or TA for advice. 

WHEN: Use your reading time strategically.
A few small adjustments to when and how you spend time reading will help you focus.
  • Aim for short, frequent sessions. You are less likely to get bored, and more likely to stay engaged, if you read in smaller, more frequent chunks of time. Reading for one hour each morning, for instance, will be more efficient than a single 6-8 hour reading block each week.
  • Have a goal and time limit. Whenever you sit down to read, break your time into multiple smaller chunks with an explicit reading goal, such as 15 minutes to review a particular section. Use a timer and, when the time runs out, select another goal and reset the timer. Do nothing else while the timer is on.
  • Take breaks. Taking short, boring breaks between timed chunks of reading is strategic — not lazy. Short breaks interspersed in every hour of study help you maintain your focus and productivity. Simply stand up, stretch your legs, and refill your water. 
  • Make it a habit. Ideally, block time in your weekly schedule to stay on top of your assigned readings; the frequency and routine will maximize how you learn. Whether it is one chapter per class per week to catch up or to read ahead, you will be more likely to complete your reading if you have a plan. If you need to catch up, for example, list everything you need to complete, and evenly distribute it over the number of days you have available. Then, each day selectively and strategically employing the strategies discussed here
HOW: Actively work with your readings. To maximize your memory and efficiency, reading should feel like an activity that has you sitting up, thinking, and working. Any of these approaches will help you actively engage with your materials:
  • Be selective. Based on your reading goals (discussed above), strategically pick and choose what you read and how you read it. There is no rule that says you have to read every word on every page. After an overall skim or preview of your entire text, focus in on only those parts of the reading that match your reading goals.
  • Take notes. If we simply read without taking notes, we overload our memories and are bound to forget the details as time moves on (an all too common frustration!). Instead, jot at least a few points based on your reading goals, or summarize comprehensive material. 
  • Consolidate your information. Aim for one great set of notes (rather than many disconnected ones). For example, find answers to something you missed in a lecture or add your textbook details to your class notes.  
  • Diagram or map out your information. Your aim is to represent how the different points fit together, instead of trying to memorize isolated facts. For example, create concept maps of chapter headings, subheadings, and main ideas. Make simple flowcharts to show steps or stages in a process or event. Or, use tables or Venn diagrams to compare and contrast related concepts (such as different perspectives on a historical event, or a range of theories explaining a specific phenomenon).
  • Complete questions. Do the practice questions or self-tests provided in your textbook (check out any online question banks provided with your textbook, as well). Or, for some variety, look up the answers to these questions; work on figuring out why one particular answer is correct and why the other answers are incorrect. 
  • Create your own questions. Turn chapter learning objectives, summary points, headings or subheadings into questions to test your knowledge. Or, ask yourself why or how key lecture concepts function.
  • Identify additional examples. Building on lecture and textbook examples, challenge yourself to think of unique examples of concepts from your own life.

Any of the approaches reviewed here will help you read actively and strategically. So, the next time you’re bored while reading, stop, take a short break, and try one of these strategies to make your reading more efficient, effective, and productive.