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Being presented with a reading list on a new course can be daunting for most students. They worry over how much to read, which bits of books and papers are relevant, and how to make effective notes from readings so that they can understand and remember the important points.
The first thing you should do when you are given a reading list is to find out which books and papers are necessary for particular lectures, tutorials or seminars and essays. If this is not clear from your module handouts do not be afraid to ask them to direct you to the most useful texts. By doing this you will be breaking up your reading into more manageable chunks and it will seem less of an obstacle.
Generally your module guide, or lecture/tutorial handout, will specify certain readings as ESSENTIAL. These are the ones you really should take the time to read.
Then there may be sources under SUGGESTED reading. These are generally very useful and will bolster your knowledge beyond set texts. Use them for essays, seminar presentations and perhaps, revision for exams.
FURTHER reading lists can be dipped into, if you have the time, when it comes to essays.
Remember – you are not expected to read everything or to read texts from cover to cover. The whole idea of academic reading is to train you to be SELECTIVE. However, it is good to get into the habit of reading beyond the set texts. But again, do not worry; deciding what to read will come with practice.
Always plan your reading.
Set aside a specific time/s in your day/week when you will read.
Pick a time when you are fresh and alert. If you are tired it will be pointless trying to read.
Decide what you are reading for – a specific lecture, tutorial, essay or a topic for exam revision.
- Decide if you want to read along or with one or two friends. Sometimes it is good to read with other people and then summarise and ask each other questions. Talking about what you have read helps to implant the information into your memory and also helps you to understand it – and understanding is the important thing – you will not remember if you don’t understand.
SELECT YOUR TEXTS
There are various things to consider when selecting material.
Check if your lecturer has recommended specific books or papers.
Always try to get the most up-to-date material. Check the date of publication. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to review older texts in order to gain some understanding of how theoretical positions have changed.
The selection process involves deciding whether or not a text is useful.
To do this:
Check the title
Date of publication
Summary notes on back or inside cover
Do the same for journal articles and also
Check the key words at the bottom of journal abstracts
Once you have decided that a publication looks as if it will be relevant for you
Look at chapter headings
Check the introductions, conclusions and any sub-headings (these will give you a good idea of what is being covered in the piece)
Read the abstracts on journal articles (this is where the writer will set out his/her argument, what the paper covers, and will help you decide if the work is useful).
HOW TO READ
After doing all the above you may still be feeling a little overwhelmed. Your task is now to learn how to read effectively. That is, getting what you need out of a piece of written work without overloading yourself with information that you will not need.
The first thing to do is to SKIM the work – read it quickly to get the general idea of what is being said.
You can then embark on a more detailed read. It is a good idea to ask yourself questions as you go along.
What is the main argument? What is the author’s point of view?
What points of theory are being elaborated? Do I understand them? Do I agree with them?
Is the author backing up her/his claims with evidence? What is that evidence?
What information here is necessary for my essay, lecture, tutorial topic? Select the information that supports your argument for your paper or presentation.
Does the author set out similar/opposing views?
What re the key points in the work and does the author succeed in doing what he/she said he/she would do in the abstract?
Make notes on the answers to your questions as you go along. At the end try to see if you can sum up what the author was addressing in a few sentences. Try our critical notes sheet or our research quick notes sheet.
As you go through a paper or chapter and makes notes it is a good idea also to be aware of the references that the author uses to support or refute points of view. Look these up in the author’s bibliography and this can be a very good way of adding to your reading list and or finding other books and journal articles that will help with specific essay or seminar topics.
The practicalities of reading will differ from person to person. Some people read very fast and other much more slowly.
If you like visual things try making your notes as maps – joining points and theories together.
If you are more of an audio person you might like to record a particular paragraph and play it back at a later stage. This will help you remember certain points.
Using a highlighter pen (though not with library books!) is a great way to pick out important passages, words or phrases. You can use different colours for different aspects of an argument/s or different topics. Use the highlighter to mark out the main ideas and theories as you come across them. This makes it easier when you come to go back over a chapter or article and is also very useful when it comes to exam revision.
Do you reading in manageable chunks. 20 minutes is enough for active reading. After than take a break and then go back and do another 20 minutes. Academic reading is exacting and tiring. Don’t try to do too much all at once.
Lots of academic texts can be very complex so do not worry if you have to read a passage several times in order to understand what is being said. We all have to do that! If you are finding texts very complicated try finding a simpler introductory book that will ease you into your subject and its main theories.
If you think you are reading too slowly try not to worry too much. Practising reading academic texts really does pay off. And you will be surprised how suddenly things start to make sense and you start to make the connections.