Reading Strategies by Reading Type
Below are specific reading strategies for three types of materials:
Before learning about these strategies, please read the Fundamentals of Efficient Reading.
Reading Science Textbooks
This strategy is for textbooks in mathematics, biology, psychology, and the like.
Triple read the chapter
Why this works: Whoa! Triple read? Won’t that take forever? Actually, triple reading helps you get the big picture before reading paragraphs, possibly reducing reading anxiety and helping you learn faster.
How to do it: As described in the Fundamentals of Reading, you may want to eliminate distractions and write down the goal of your reading. Then, read the chapter in three steps:
- Page through the text, asking, “How is this organized?” (5–10 mins): Pay attention to how the chapter is broken into sections and sub-sections, and how sub-sections have key definitions, graphs, examples, and formulae. Getting the overall structure makes detailed learning faster and easier.
- Start again at the beginning, asking, “What questions are being answered?” (5–10 mins): Turn section headings into questions. For example, if the chapter on motivation has a section titled “Self-Handicapping,” ask yourself, “What is self-handicapping, and how is it linked to motivation?” If the chapter on measurement has a section titled “Converting Units,” ask yourself, “Why do I have to convert units?” The point is to reinforce the big picture and inspire confidence and curiosity.
- Read and write to meet your reading goal (duration depends on your goal and available time): Estimate what pace you have to work at to cover the material in the time you have. Then read to meet your reading goal (e.g., understanding tomorrow’s lecture, doing the problem set, preparing for the quiz). Write or draw as needed to support your learning. The time you put into writing depends on the amount of time you allocate to covering the material. Remember: the more you self test, the more durable your learning (see Test yourself). Self test by hiding the material and writing from memory, then check what you missed and self test again.
The triple-read strategy is powerful and a great fit for college-level learning. However, it is moderately difficult, complex, and anxiety cueing. So, give yourself credit for any piece of it you add to your reading practice. Keep revisiting the strategy to see how much more of it you could adopt to help you efficiently and enjoyably achieve your learning goals.
Reading articles that report empirical findings
This strategy is for reading science articles, such those generally assigned in STEM, sociology, and psychology courses. These articles are usually reports of correlational or experimental research.
Triple read the article
Why this works: By previewing the article a couple of times before diving in, you’re building an outline in your mind that will make learning the content easier and more comfortable.
How to Do It: Remember that, as described in the general reading strategies, you want to be prepared to focus and know the goal of your reading. Often that goal is to stimulate conversation in a seminar or section.
Be selective about which articles to focus on. If five articles were assigned in a week, a common strategy is to prioritize one article that seems most important to the course or most interesting to you and spend a couple of hours on that one. Then, spend half an hour each on the other articles, just extracting and writing down main points.
For the article you have prioritized:
- Page through the article, asking, “How is this organized?” (5 mins): Pay attention to how the title of the article is expanded on in the abstract. Count the figures and graphs. See if the Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion sections have any sub-categories. All you need to do is pay attention to these structural markers to start creating a framework in your mind.
- Now that you have the structure, determine the main message (5–15 mins): Return to the first page. Look at the abstract. What were the results? Look at the Introduction. What were the predictions? Look at the Method. What specifically did participants do? Look at the Results. What figures, graphs, or text describe the key results? Look at the Discussion. Where are the results summarized? Be able to explain in a few sentences the hypotheses, method, and results—that is, the abstract—in your own words. The point is to grasp the core of the study and activate curiosity.
If you self test at this point by writing down your own rough abstract, your grasp will be strong.
- Read to meet your reading goal (duration depends on your goal and available time): As described in Figure out the goal of the reading, write down your reading goal. Next, estimate what pace you have to read at to meet your goal in the time window you have. Then, read to meet that goal. Write, type, or draw as needed to support your learning (see Hunt for what matters). Again, strengthen what you know by self testing in the last 10 minutes of your reading session.
The triple-read strategy will really help you learn efficiently from articles. But it requires tolerating some discomfort, especially when you are just learning it. So, pat yourself on the back for any bit of it you add to your reading practice. And, keep re-reading the instructions across the quarter, to really make deep, efficient reading a habit.
These reading strategies are specifically for material that presents an argument. Argumentative texts are common in the humanities. The social and physical sciences have review and theory articles, which present arguments as well.
A book is perhaps most challenging, so these instructions apply to reading a book. However, the basic idea can be used for argumentative articles. For more strategies that might help with reading articles, see Reading articles that report empirical findings, above.
Triple read the book
Why this works: If, in reading the book, you first grasp the structure and then the core argument, you can avoid getting bogged down in details and be ready to discuss the big ideas.
How to Do It: As described in the The Fundamentals of Efficient Reading, reduce distraction and write a reading goal before you start.
- Get to know your book. Look through the book to grasp the structure (5 mins): Does the title have a subtitle? Is there a book description on the back that seems useful? How long is the table of contents? Does it have parts, chapters, sections? How many pages is the intro? Does it have sections? How about the conclusion: number of pages, sections?
- Grasp the core argument (30–60 mins): What would you tell a friend who asked, “What’s the book about?” in a couple of minutes.
- Return to the cover. Why was that title chosen? What point would you guess the author make, and why? Thinking “I’m not sure, but I think they may say XYZ” is a much better way to start learning from a book than having no thought at all.
- Look at the table of contents. What are the main parts of the argument, as far as you can tell? Ask this question, and exert yourself to generate a good guess.
- Hunt through the introduction chapter to see what you can add to or subtract from your understanding of the argument (see Hunt for what matters). Hunt through the conclusion in the same way.
- Resist getting caught up in details. Jot down just enough to keep your mind from drifting to more pleasant or more stressful things.
- Afterwards, hide the book and your notes and write down what you now understand of the book’s core argument (see Test yourself). Have you got a 50% grasp of the core argument? Good. Give yourself credit for your efforts.
- Do any additional reading needed to achieve your reading goal (duration depends on your goal and your time window): Write down your reading goal. Determine what speed you have to read at to meet your goal in the available time. Then, hunt through the book to meet that goal. This usually means selectively reading chapters. Write down your goal first or you’ll likely get stuck in details!
- For each chapter worth reading, do what you did for the book. Ask, “What’s the meaning of the title? What’s the main point in the introductory and concluding paragraphs?”
- For each chapter, ask, “What’s the key example or figure that supports this chapter’s argument?” If you know the sub-argument and key data or example for a chapter, you’re probably in great shape.
Don’t forget to self test to see if you really know the sub-argument and to improve your retention of it. Remember, you’re reading now to demonstrate learning sometime in the future.
The triple-read strategy for books will help you efficiently get a handle on the big ideas so you can think about those ideas in relation to other big ideas and accumulate knowledge. But, it’s not easy to break the old first-word-to-last-word reading habit. So, give yourself credit for every piece of the triple-read strategy you are able to integrate.
Regularly review these instructions to really develop your college-level reading skills. Lower stress and deeper learning awaits you.