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The Fundamentals of Efficient Reading

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Reading at college level requires new skills. Here are strategies on the fundamentals of efficient reading, as well as strategies for reading science textbooks, empirical articles, and argumentative works.

The Fundamentals of Efficient Reading

Students often spend hours reading, yet say they have trouble paying attention, don’t really understand, and get lost in details. If you put in the time and effort to learn the following sequence of strategies, you will be able to stay more focused on readings and get more out of them in the same amount of time or even less. 

By resisting typical habits of online reading, doing college-level skimming, figuring out the goal of the reading, reading selectively to achieve your reading goal, and testing yourself, you will enjoy more engaged, rewarding, and efficient reading that will prepare you for seminar discussion, reading reflection, or paper writing.

Resist the typical habits of online reading

  • Why this works: Reading challenging online texts successfully requires different mental and physical habits than those that work for typical web-based reading. If you build the habit of focused digital reading, you’ll learn more.
  • How to do it: Resist the urge to just skim your eyes over text without thinking, to react to any interest that pops to mind by opening another tab and starting a search, and to jump back and forth from the reading to email, Facebook, or some other work you’re doing on your device. Instead, reduce digital distractions as much as you’re willing, set a timer for focused work, and follow the remaining suggestions on reading.

Understand what “skimming” means in college

  • Why this works: Professors assign more reading than you can possibly read if you read as you might read a book for pleasure (first word to last word, and everything in between). To do well, you must skim. But first, you must know what skimming means in college.
  • How to do it: Forget thinking of skimming as passing your eyes quickly over the text to get the main idea quickly. That works for an article in an online newspaper, but not for college reading. Instead, think of skimming as setting a reading goal and then reading selectively to meet that goal. 

Figure out the goal of the reading

  • Why this works: If you know what the goal of the reading is, you're more likely to meet the goal. 
  • How to do it: Figure out the goal of the reading you’ve been assigned. To determine the goal, look through material (syllabus, the reading itself) to identify it—to contribute in a seminar? To better understand the lecture? Once you know the goal, write it at the top of a sheet. Your goal can be as basic as “To prepare for seminar: write the 5 main points” or as specific as “To understand the lecture: Define bases, alkalis, and acids and explain why they matter.” 

Hunt for what matters

  • Why this works: When you concentrate for a short chunk on extracting only what you need, you’ll learn more, faster.
  • How to do it: Decide on a short period of time (e.g., 25–50 minutes) or segment of reading (e.g., intro, section headings, conclusion) in which you will pursue your reading goal. Instead of reading from front to back, read the way you would an online resource when you’re just trying to get a specific answer to a question—identify the parts in the article that probably help you answer your question and hunt through them. Mainly focus on building knowledge in your mind—known as a “mental model.” Do this by talking to yourself: “Ok, what their saying is . . . that reminds me of the professor saying . . .”

Test yourself

  • Why this works: Writing down what you’ve built into your mental model via self-explanations—without looking at text or notes—will strengthen the model. Many studies show self testing is an effective way to build durable knowledge. 
  • How to do it: Hide the reading from yourself. From your mental model, write answers to the reading questions you wrote at the beginning (i.e., self test). Expect this process to be moderately hard and halting. After writing down all you can remember, determine what you need to hunt for next, and do so. Afterward, repeat the self testing.