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Library Guides

Reading and Note-taking: Effective Reading

Overview

To succeed at University, you have to read a lot. Your reading has to be effective, which implies understanding and engaging with the texts, making links, and applying what you learn. 

Read with a Purpose

Avoid wasting time, going through a sea of information without getting much out of it: always read with a purpose and actively. 

Reading for revision

If you are reading for revision, think: what should I learn and remember? Set yourself SMART objectives for the study session. See the guide on exam preparation.

Reading for an assignment 

If you are reading for an assignment, think: what topics do I need to cover? What information am I looking for? You are not just reading everything related to the topic of your assignment; you are actively and purposefully researching information. 

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Finding and Selecting What to Read

How to find sources

See the guide about Library Search to learn to find sources in the library. Use your subject Library guide to find sources specific on your field of research. You can also use the internet and Google Scholar. See the library guide on using Google Scholar.

Broaden your search

Initially, broaden your search not to overlook relevant results.

Mind mapping for generating ideas and creative thinking

Place a blank sheet in landscape position and write the essay question in the middle. Draw branches from the question, which are possible ideas and topics to include in the essay. Add sub-topics (“leaves”) and connect ideas and evidence from your reading. You can use colours and images to stimulate your thinking. Some leaves can be used as key words for your search. 

Play with your key words

Look for synonyms and related terms: 

Example:

Topic: “The impact of Covid-19 on the British environment”

What to search?

Covid-19 British Environment

Synonyms and related words

Coronavirus; SARS-CoV-2

Pollution; air quality; waste

Britain; United Kingdom, UK, England, Scotland, Wales, British Isles, Ireland

Be selective: get relevant sources 

Keep an open mind but only look for and use sources which are relevant for your assignment (unless of course you are reading for interest!). It is crucial that you take control of the literature, and do not let the literature control you! The literature is a means to your end, that is, finding information and evidence to discuss the specific issues you have identified as relevant for your assignment. You are not just trying to fit into your assignment all the literature you find.

Be critical: evaluate the validity of the sources

Be critical towards the literature: always enquire on the validity of the information you find. See Critical Reading for more information.

Kinds of Reading

A key to active and effective reading is to use different kinds of reading:

  • Skim it, if you are just considering whether a piece of writing is relevant for your study.
  • Scan it if you are looking for specific information.
  • Read in depth if you need to comprehend and analyse something.

Skimming

Skimming is reading to form a general impression of the text to see if it will be useful to your needs.

You don’t need to read every word or in too much depth or detail. To quickly obtain information about the text, you can:

  • Read the title, the introduction, any headings and subheadings, and the conclusion
  • Read the first sentence of each paragraph (the topic sentence)
  • Read the concluding sentence of each paragraph
  • Read the words highlighted in bold
  • Look at illustrations (pictures, diagrams, tables

Example of skimming (yellow highlighter): 

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Skimming gives you the gist of it: this paragraph is about flexiterianism, that is, a mainly vegeterian (or vegan) diet with exceptions to the rule. Fexiterianism is becoming more popular for a series of reasons. 

Scanning

Scanning is looking for a particular piece of information. Unlike skimming, when scanning we only look for specific information without reading everything else and we usually know what we are looking for. Scanning gives you the opportunity to find the specific information you need and determine whether or not this text will be useful to you.

To scan: find a word/phrase or number and let your eyes move quickly through the text until you find the word/words you are looking for. When you know how the text is organised, this can be done even quicker!

Before you scan, establish your purpose. What are the key words of your assignment question or key purpose and argument? By knowing the purpose of the reading and what the key words/phrases are that you require, this will help you to locate the appropriate material. 

Techniques that can assist in scanning:

  • Learning how to use your hands in the process can be an effective way of guiding your scanning. Do you ever scan a page by using your finger to physically locate the information? Using your hand or fingers on the page can help to focus your attention, along with assisting you in keeping track of your place on the page whilst scanning the material. 
  • Learning how to use your periphery vision can help, as when your hand moves down the page, you not only see the information your finger is pointing to but also the information above and below. Letting your eyes work for you and trusting their ability to search for information even when you are not 100% focused on the peripheral content will help in being able to locate information quicker. 
  • Continuously keep the key words/phrases in your mind whilst you scan. It will help to maintain your focus.
  • Give yourself permission to scan. Remember why you are scanning and that it is an initial stage of reading. It can be uncomfortable to scan at first without feeling concerned that you may be missing valuable information, but remember that this is an initial stage: you are scanning to check that the key words are present in the text and that the text will be valuable and relevant to your purpose. Once you have done this, you will then know whether it is worth going back and reading the text properly or not. Therefore, scanning is a technique used as an initial stage in critical reading, so give yourself permission to engage with this initial stage and reassure yourself that if the text is relevant, you will read it properly afterwards.

Scanning example (green highlighter): why is flexiterianism more environmental? 

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Scanning through the text, you only look for the information required. You will therefore find that flexitarians eat less meat, and therefore contribute less to carbon emissions and depletion of environmental resources associated with the meat industry. 

In-depth Reading

When your text is important, and you need to gain a thorough understanding of all or part of it, you need to read for meaning. Keep in mind your purpose and read actively: 

• Use questions to stimulate interest: especially next to headings
• Use connecting questions: connect with your previous knowledge
• Ask yourself: am I understanding this?  What does it mean? How does it relate to last week?
• Read difficult sections out loud
• Underline key ideas (only in books that you own)
• Make summaries
• Write in margins (only in books that you own)