Reading is at the heart of all academic study, much of what you will learn in your time at UCSD will be as a result of your own independent research. Reading books, journals and websites on your topic, making notes
and using what you have learnt as evidence to support your arguments in seminars, presentations and written assessments. It is an important part of your studies, so it is worth learning how to do it well. Learning how to
manage your reading and take effective notes can give you back hours of your time for studying.
Managing academic reading
Reading is one of the essential activities of studying, it is not called reading for a degree for nothing! However it can be daunting when you are faced with an extensive reading list.
How do you know
- Which ones to read or which bits of the text to read?
- What can you do to make reading complex texts more manageable?
- How can you avoid it taking all of your time?
This page suggests ways for you to improve your reading skills and to read in a more focused and selective manner.
Setting reading goals
Before starting to read you need to consider why you are reading and what you are trying to learn. You will need to vary the way you read accordingly. If you are reading for general interest and to acquire background information for lectures you will need to read the topic widely but with not much depth. If you are reading for an assessment you will
need to focus the reading around the assessment question and may need to study a small area of the subject in great depth. Jot down the essay question, make a note of any questions you have about it, and do not get side-tracked and waste time on non-relevant issues.
Choosing the right texts
It is unlikely that you will be able or be expected to read all the books on your reading list, you will read chapters and sections of the books. To decide whether a book is relevant and useful:
Read the publisher’s blurb on the cover or look through the editor’s introduction to see whether it is relevant, then look at the contents page. Consider if the book covers what you want and if it is at the right level. See how many pages there are on your topic.
Skim through the introduction to get an idea of the author’s approach. Look up an item in the index and read one or two paragraphs to see how the author deals with the material. You can look though the bibliography to see the range of the author’s sources and review the examples, illustrations, diagrams, and tables to see if they are easy to follow and helpful for your purpose.
To select useful articles from journals or research papers read the summary or abstract and decide if it is relevant, then read the conclusion and skim-read the discussion, looking at headings, then consider if the article is worth reading.
If the article is relevant, skim through the introduction and question if the article summarises the field in a helpful way. You can see if there is a useful literature review and only read the entire article if you are satisfied that it is essential reading and highly relevant to your assessment and it is likely that you can get ideas from it.
eBooks are electronic versions of print texts. You can read them on various devices. The library has purchased access rights to thousands of eBooks which you can access and read on or off campus. eBooks are available to you at any time, day or night if you are connected to the internet.
The library has invested heavily in eBook subscriptions, which you can access through the eLibrary.
Navigating the text in eBooks
Reading an eBook gives you access to features that print versions do not have. For instance, you can search the text electronically to find key words or phrases. Think carefully about what you need to search for to make sure that you do not end up with too many results to scan through. It is a good idea to think about the purpose of your reading before you start. Think about why you are reading this text, what do you already know and what do you need to find out. Deciding on these questions will help you to see what you need to search for, and the best way to find it.
When you find the information you need, remember to read around it so that you can see and understand the context. It is more difficult to get an overview when reading an eBook, so always consider reading the introductory chapter and thinking about the purpose of your reading before you start.
How many sources should you read
It is impossible to give a figure for the number of sources you should read when an assessment It is more important to think about the quality of the sources and how well you use and interpret them, than the number you read.
It is not a good idea to rely on 1 or 2 sources very heavily as this shows a lack of wider reading and can mean you just get a limited view without thinking of an argument of your own.
Nor is it useful (or possible) to read everything on the reading list and try to fit it all into your assessment. This usually leads to losing your own thoughts under a mass of reading.
The best way is to be strategic about your reading and identify what you need to find out and what the best sources to use to find this information. It can be better to read less and try to think about, and understand, the issues more clearly. To take time and make sure you really get the ideas rather than reading increasingly which can create confusion.
Going beyond the reading list
- Use the library catalogue and eBook central to find other books on that topic
- Reserve items in advance from the LRC and photocopy the relevant pages
- Look for relevant e-journal articles via our eLibrary
- Use online resources BUT always evaluate them to see if they are appropriate for academic purposes. For help with this, see our guide to Evaluating Websites.
- Ask a Librarian in the LRC – the best people resources!
Keep focused on your reading goals. One way to do this is to ask questions as you read and try to read actively and creatively. It is a good idea to think of your own subject related questions, but the following may be useful. Collecting information
- What do you want to know about
- What is the main idea behind the writing
- What conclusions can be drawn from the evidence
- In research, what are the major findings
Questioning the writing
- What are the limitations or flaws in the evidence
- Can the theory be disproved or is it too general
- What examples would prove the opposite theory
- What would you expect to come next
- What would you like to ask the author
Forming your own opinion
- How does this fit in with my own theory/beliefs
- How does it fit with the opposite theory/beliefs
- Are my own theory/beliefs still valid
- Am I surprised
- Do I agree
Your reading speed is limited by your thinking speed. If ideas or information requires lots of understanding, then it is necessary to read slowly. Choosing a reading technique depends upon why you are reading:
- To enjoy the language or the narrative
- As a source of information and/or ideas
- To discover the scope of a subject before a lecture, seminar, or research project
- To compare theories or approaches by different authors or researchers
- For a particular piece of work e.g., essay, dissertation
It is important to keep your aims in mind. Most reading will require a mixture of techniques e.g. scanning to find the critical passages followed by reflective reading.
- Good for searching for specific information or to see if a passage is relevant
- Look up a word or subject in the index or look for the chapter most likely to contain the required information.
- Use a pencil and run it down the page to keep your eyes focusing on the search for key words
Good to quickly gain an overview, familiarise yourself with a chapter or an article or to understand the structure for later note making.
- Do not need to read every word
- Read summaries, heading and subheadings
- Look at tables, diagrams, and illustrations
- Read first sentences of paragraphs to see what they are about.
- If the material is useful or interesting, decide whether just some sections are relevant or whether you need to read it all.
Reflective or critical reading
- Good for building your understanding and knowledge
- Think about the questions you want to answer
- Read actively in the search for answers
- Look for an indication of the chapter’s structure or any other “map” provided by the author.
Follow through an argument by looking for its structure
- Main point
- Reasons, qualifications, evidence, examples
Look for signpost sentences or phrases to indicate the structure
- There are three main reasons
- First… Secondly.. Thirdly…
Or to emphasise the main ideas
- Most importantly
- To summarise
Connecting words may indicate separate steps in the argument
- On the other hand
After you have read a chunk, make brief notes remembering to record the page number as well as the complete reference (Author, title, date, journal/publisher).
At the end of the chapter or article put the book aside and go over your notes, to ensure that they adequately reflect the main points. Ask yourself
- How has this added to your knowledge
- Will it help you to make out an argument for your essay
- Do you agree with the arguments, research methods, evidence
Add any of your own ideas to your notes, indicating that they are YOUR ideas use [ ] or different colours.
Good for scanning and skim-reading but remember that it is usually more important to understand what you read than to read quickly. Reading at speed is unlikely to work for reflective, critical reading.
If you are concerned that you are slow:
- Check that you are not mouthing the words, it will slow you down
- Do not stare at individual words, let your eyes run along a line stopping at every third word. Practise and then lengthen the run until you are stopping only four times per line, then three times and so on.
- The more you read, the faster you will become as you grow more familiar with specialist vocabulary, academic language and reading about theories and ideas. So, keep practising…
If you still have concerns about your reading speed, book an individual advice session with a HE Study.
Here is the UCSD Reading Effectively guide