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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 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. 

Set reading goals when reading for an assignment. If you have created an assignment plan already this will help greatly when knowing what information to look for when reading as you can focus on and read for small sections of your assignment.

Firstly make sure the text is relevant to your needs and focus the reading around your assignment question or even specific parts of your assignment.

Quick reading strategy for assignments

  1. Jot down the essay question
  2. Make a note of any questions you have about it. What do you want to find out?
  3. Keep your argument in mind (if you have one already)
  4. Don't get side-tracked and waste time on non-relevant information and sections, just try to find the answers to the questions you wrote down.

Top tip!

Making an assignment plan can help greatly with focusing your reading, as you can just focus the reading around one smaller section of your assignment and not the whole piece of writing.   

Reading for seminars and additional weekly course reading

Seminars can vary depending on your course, but generally they are opportunities for you to take part in exploring a topic more deeply and to analyse and evaluate different viewpoints on a given topic. As such good reading preparation before seminars is vitally important.

When you read, it is very easy to fall into the trap of being a passive reader, and to read without understanding or questioning ideas, in order to get through it quickly. You will find if you do this, that once you get to the seminar you will not remember much because you have not engaged with it.

One tip is to try to read actively by entering into a conversation with the text/author.  You can do this by asking questions of the text as you read!

Research indicates that students who struggle with reading do not ask questions as they read—before, during, or after (Antioch University 2020)

You can do this in a separate note book or on the text itself –

  1. As you read, highlight, or even better write down (always referencing the page number) anything you think looks interesting. Sometimes it is better to write it down, as we can often end up highlighting lots of things. When you write it down, we tend to be more selective.
  2. When you have done this, think about and reflect on the quotes you have highlighted/written down. You can now be free to respond to these. This can be done in many different ways and here are just a few -  
  • Comment on the quote – What are your initial feelings/thoughts?
  • What questions arise for you?
  • Do you have any new thoughts/ ideas that have developed from your reflection?

All the above can be brought to the seminar discussion and by asking questions of the text you are engaging in a conversation with the author and this will not only help you understand the material better, but it will also help the information to become stored in your long term memory.

Reading for exams  

When it comes to reading for revision, if you have kept up with your weekly reading and note making during the term, extra reading should not be a mammoth task come revision time.  However, you may still want to bring in the most current literature to your exams, so you may need to read a couple more current texts, possibly journals, to add to your module notes.

Firstly, plan out the topics you are going to revise and have a look at past papers if possible, to identify topics that have come up regularly over the last couple of years. You can always predict exam questions too and use coursework and seminar questions to practise focussing your reading on each topic, much like reading for your assignments.

Exam markers are looking for

  • Well-supported arguments that draw on evidence (e.g. examples and academic sources) from outside your lecture notes!
  • A thorough understanding of different perspectives and arguments
  • A solid understanding of theoretical concepts and models and their application
  • Critical analysis and evaluation of ideas, arguments and theories
  • understanding of the module and how the modules overlap

As such how you read and take notes for your exam is important, as reading and writing are intrinsically linked!

Read critically for your exams - Think about how your topics link together as you may get questions with multiple topics. Here are some questions that may help to direct your reading.

  • What are the core theories, concepts and models within this topic?
  • What are the major debates/issues?
  • Do you agree or disagree with these and why?
  • What’s your perspective? Can you find any evidence to support this?
  • What other perspectives are there? Could they be valid? Why, why not?

For more help and support with this, see our guide on critical reading.

Are there any gaps in your knowledge?  What do you need more information on? Are you missing any information on specific theories, concepts, issues, case studies, methodologies etc. You can then look out for these areas when you’re reading.

Weekly course reading

Try to keep up with your additional weekly course reading and note making. Always check the module learning outcomes and reading lists for each week, as this will help guide your additional reading choices.

Top tip!

Block out weekly reading time in the week as part of your independent study time!

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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

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.

The quality of your sources will have a direct impact on the quality of your assignment, so when you’re selecting sources, be careful and check the following

  1. Is it relevant to your needs? Is there information in the text that you need? Skimming skills can help you decide this (see section on skimming in this guide)
  2. Is it up to date? There will be some sources that are older but are seminal pieces of work 
  3. Who wrote it? Are they an expert in their field?
  4. Is the information in the text reliable? Is it well researched? What sources do they use? Is it fact or opinion or conjecture?
  5. What is the purpose of the source? Why was it written? Is it to instruct, to inform, to persuade, to amuse?  Depending on who the author is associated with, could there be bias?

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)

 

Effective reading video

In the following video Doug Specht, Senior Lecturer at the Westminster School of Media and Communication, provides six tips for effective reading:

  1. Previewing
  2. Annotating
  3. Outlining
  4. Identifying patterns
  5. Contextualising
  6. Comparing and contrasting