Reading Comprehension in Graduate School
January 16, 2010 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any experience with psychology in graduate school? We recently started reading journal articles in one of our classes and it's quite a bit of work to understand what the articles are all about. I'm not sure whether I'm a little slow or whether I just feel intimidated, but really understanding what I'm reading is quite difficult. The method I've used for now, is to read the article a couple of times, highlighting what I think is important. Then I take notes on the article and it slowly comes to me. I'm not sure whether it's significant that I wasn't a psychology major in my undergraduate program. If anyone has any tips or tricks or other advice for understanding what we're reading, I'd greatly appreciate the help. Thank you,
posted by Garden to Education (22 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not (yet) a grad student, but I recently agreed to work on a literature review for an academic and found it difficult at first to understand what I was reading because I'm not accustomed to reading that type of article. My husband (who just completed his PhD and has thus read his share of journal articles) suggested that I approach each paper by writing quick notes on the lit review section (what are the authors considering to be the background work in their area?), the methods section, and the results. I found this extremely helpful for tracking the information I was trying to take in. Sure, you don't retain all the detail this way, but it gives you a start in terms of feeling comfortable with the material. The papers I was reading for this project were not psychology articles, but they were formatted similarly to psychology articles I have read in other contexts.

It will get easier with time, of course, but initially any type of learning that is new to you will be difficult. The above method of very specific, targeted note-taking really helped me to get my footing in the area I was reading about.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:29 PM on January 16, 2010

Oh also--keep in mind that not every smart, talented researcher is a talented writer. Sometimes people simply don't write clearly or compellingly, and you don't need to feel stupid for not understanding it on the first read-through.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:32 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your method sounds good, keep at it. Academic writing is dense, not you.
posted by domnit at 12:35 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not having a background will make it a bit more difficult, but the process you're going through sounds pretty average for a new grad student.

Journal articles are often part of a drawn-out conversation. One of the reason it's hard to get what they are talking about is because there are going to be a lot of short-hand references to theories and concepts that you won't recognize until you have a little more breadth in the subject.

One good way to get started on an article is to really try to slow down and understand the abstract, intro, and conclusion before you get into the meat of the paper. These should set up the broad ideas and conclusions in such a way that you are able to then fit the evidence into an intellectual framework. Reading multiple times is a good strategy.

Another thing you might find helpful is a good theory book that covers the major schools of thought with some examples of the major thinkers. I'm not in psychology, so I can't recommend one, but something that is "the history of psychological thought/theory" that is aimed at students and annotated is what you should look for. Then you can reference different authors and schools of thought as they come up in your papers, which should help with jumping into the conversation. Perhaps ask a prof for a recommendation, or someone here might have a good one as well.

Lastly, consider reading with a dictionary. A lot of the words are jargon, but not all of them are (or you might be able to get a psychology-specific dictionary). Sometimes it's worth just looking up "teleological" or "hermeneutical" or stuff like that, even if you have a vague sense of what they mean. It can pull a whole paragraph into focus, and you'll improve your vocabulary much faster than if you try to absorb new words/words you vaguely know from context.
posted by carmen at 12:42 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was a student in a communication sciences & disorders program (studying to be a speech therapist) I found journal articles to be extremely tough. I understand them better now, but it's certainly not recreational reading by any means.

One of the best ways for me to understand the article was to read it aloud, and then rephrase each paragraph. It was also helpful to read with a classmate so we could discuss it as we went along. That might help fill in the gaps in your knowledge as well.

It sounds like you're doing all the right things. Keep at it.
posted by christinetheslp at 12:47 PM on January 16, 2010

I'm a psych grad student. I've published academic papers and have a lot of experience reading them.

For the most part, it's all about practice, and becoming familiar with the places to look for the information you need. I've been told to write papers like this: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. This goes for the paper as a whole and each section within a paper. Psych writing, unlike some other disciplines, lays it all out there in the first couple of sentences and then elaborates in the body of the text.There are analogous patterns in terms of moving from generals to specifics.

I personally read empirical papers (where they ran an actual study, as opposed to theoretical papers) for my grad classes by looking at the abstract and typing out a quick outline of the main points. Then I read the intro, skim the lit review, methods, and analyses (unless I know there is something important in there, like they used a novel analytic technique that I may need to know about), and read the results and conclusion, using the information I find to fill in the outline I started.
posted by emilyd22222 at 12:52 PM on January 16, 2010

I'm not in psychology but I am a graduate student, and I agree with those above who are suggesting that you stick with your method. Unfortunately, more complex material often takes a bit of work to really digest. Try reading once to just sort of get the gist of a piece, paying close attention to the introduction and conclusion. Maybe jot down a note if you identify what you think is the thesis statement of the article (just write "TH" or something like that). Then read through it more carefully, underlining or highlighting as you go. At that point, try taking your notes, but base them around what you highlighted. Try to "translate" them into your own words as much as possible.
posted by synecdoche at 12:57 PM on January 16, 2010

I'm in another social science field - but I agree with emilyd for how I read my papers. I focus heavily on the abstract and introduction, skim lit review (you might want to familiarize yourself more with this section, if you aren't as knowledgeable about the field, skim methods, skim analyses, and read result/conclusion. Another trick I use is to see who is citing the articles - do a search for where they are citing the authors and see how people are using their work. The key for me is to never let a "summary" exceed a page in length, but I'm doing a large volume of summaries, so I need to recall the basics of alot of these, not the depth.
Does your class have a TA? If so - utilize them! They've usually read these a number of times and can situate it in the larger field. If just the prof's office hours, use them, but don't overwhelm. Have you thought about starting a reading group or exchanging notes with anyone else in your class?
posted by quodlibet at 12:58 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've never been a psych grad student, just an undergrad.

Psychology articles are written in a very standardized format, and use fairly standardized terminology across articles if they're about the same topic. Once you get used to this, they'll start getting much easier to read. Also, presentation of results in tables and graphs in psych articles is often (usually) much clearer than the verbal explanation of the same information, once you've got a good understanding from the verbal explanation of the variables they refer to.

I've been through the same thing. Reading the meat of an article, my reaction was often "what? huh?" - then, reading the corresponding table of correlations, or however it was presented, "wow, that's pretty neat!" I don't think there's any way around this. Interrelationships between variables are hard to describe well in words, but you can see them. And when you do, you can understand what the authors are talking about.

I do think not having been an undergraduate major makes a difference, you would have gotten broken in on this. When you get used to the format, it will start making more sense.

If you're not already familiar with the common types of statistical analysis used in psych research, you will have to take classes in it. And that will help a lot.
posted by nangar at 1:04 PM on January 16, 2010

Create a table or spreadsheet for your lit review. Also have some sort of post-it or section of the document to have this information in.

column 1: citation IN APA
column 2: findings
column 3: theory used
column 4: hypotheses
column 5: method(s)

Basically you really need to walk away from an article stating that Bob and Joe (2006) found that organic bunny snacks were more likely to cure hunger than nacho cheese bunny snacks. They used the theory of yumminess.

What is awesome about lit review tables is that you're generating for yourself a TON of useful findings. So later (years later even) you can pop into your lit review tables and copy and paste all the findings about yumminess into one useful statement. "Many have found that organic is better than nacho cheese (Bob & Joe, 2006; 2008; Fred & Mary, 2009; Steve & Cindy, 2009)."
posted by k8t at 1:24 PM on January 16, 2010 [12 favorites]

Papers are hard to get through in pretty much every field, I think. I remember the first time I had to read a research paper in my field, it took me a whole summer to read.

Last month I helped out a research group by going through abstracts and tagging them with summarizing words and phrases. Some were in my field, computer science, and the others were in chemistry. I found that I could comprehend the CS ones easily, but that the chemistry ones barely even seemed like English...and then I stepped back and realized that a few years ago the CS ones probably wouldn't have seemed much like English either.
posted by crinklebat at 1:28 PM on January 16, 2010

No one ever comes right out and tells you this, but any kind of serious academic work comes with the requirement to re-learn how to read. Reading for pleasure is a completely different beast from reading academic work, as you have discovered. I have found that reading academic work is actually quicker than reading for pleasure, since you don't have to read every single word to get the gist, but you need to learn how to do it first.

If you're reading something printed out, make a lot of notes in the margins. Margins are small, so post it notes are helpful to expand your note-taking area. When I was reading for phd comps (list of about 200 academic books), I would read a page, and then write a brief summary of the page's argument, or what I found on that page that I might want to remember, on a post it note and stick it to the page. Sometimes I would write a quotation from the article on the post it, something that was particularly interesting, insightful, or good example/summation of the point of the chapter/article. I'd stick a reworded version of the chapter's thesis statement (or what appears to be its thesis statement) on its first or second page. I might use a couple of post it notes on the last few paragraphs, where the conclusions and further research comments are. That's a structure that works for history; others have detailed how psych articles are structured.

Reading academic work involves a lot of attention and concentration. I find it helpful to think of academic work as a conversation someone is having with me, trying to convince me of something. I should have lots of reactions and questions along the way.

Good luck!
posted by Hildegarde at 1:29 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

OK. Basic psych article format:

1) General overview of research topic, with discussion of previous research; then the specific area of the topic the authors are interested in, with discussion of previous research.
2) Hypothesis: we think phenomenon A might be due to X,Y and Z because (explanation),
and we thought it might be possible to test this by doing M,N and Q because (explanation).
3) Research methodology - usually set off in a different font.
4) Results, and interpretation. (Anything that went wrong is also included here.)
5) Discussion, limitations of the current study, other possible interpretations, suggestions for further research.
posted by nangar at 1:52 PM on January 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I was a psych undergrad, and we read journal articles frequently in my upper-level courses. I had some where there was no text, just a compendium of journal articles. But, it was undergrad not grad so YMMV. I went to law school rather than on into grad school so I absolutely realize it might be very, very different.

I remember being taught to read the conclusion first, and then read the whole article. Then, I would go back and read the methods (so I could comment for example that samples were random) and the results. I would critically think about the results, and whether I disagreed with or had anything to add to the researchers conclusions, in very specific ways. Then, I would sort of compare against the intro in a "where does this fit in the scheme of things?" kind of way.

I had taken pysch statistics before classes that focused on journal articles, which really helped in understanding the nitty gritty. I usually came to an article with a few questions in my head (What was the hypothesis? Was the methodology sound? What were the results? What does it mean?) that I wanted to center my understanding around.
posted by bunnycup at 2:05 PM on January 16, 2010

I was a psychology major as an undergrad, and before that did some empirical psychology research one summer during high school. Just as a data point, I remember it being a huge adjustment for me to try to read that stuff when I was just getting introduced to it back in high school. And I now write/edit for a living. So it's definitely not just you.
posted by limeonaire at 2:35 PM on January 16, 2010

I just earned my masters in history, and your method sounds much like the one I used to read articles in history.

I would always do a brief search on the author's name. What is their specialty? Have they written any books that relate to the subject of the article? Are there any controversies which immediately appear upon searching their name?

Then search for reviews of that specific article (J-Stor/Historical Abstracts are the big ones for me), but DO NOT read them yet. Just bookmark or save them.

Then read the title, the introduction, and the conclusion. Write down the main points expressed. This will probably take a minimum of two readings, up to ten or so for the really dense articles.

Then read the entire paper once, paying careful attention to the evidence that supports the main arguments and supporting arguments that are stressed in the introduction and conclusion. Think about how the title relates to the overall thrust of the article. That might be less important in psychology, but in history a title was often a clever/amusing summary of what point the author wanted you to take away.

Then I would read it again, taking notes this time while looking at how the argument was constructed, what evidence was presented and if possible what evidence was left out, which often tells you a lot about the overall thought processes and school of the author.

NOW you read all the reviews, and look at whether or not the reviewers picked up on the same things you did. They may or may not. That helps to cement my understanding of the article as a whole after picking it into pieces.

This really sounds more arduous than it actually is, because by the time you have a semester or two under your belt you will be an ace at skimming intelligently and can do this whole procedure in an hour or two. You'll want to repeat it again the next day or so to get a fresh perspective on it.*

Save all the articles you read and your notes on them, because you may need them later for comprehensive exams. That may not be relevant in psychology, but it was a big deal in history.

*Or, if you're pressed for time and it's in an area that is not particularly relevant to your scholarly interests, you do it all an hour before your seminar and think of three points to throw in at some point during class to show your participation. You don't want to do that as a habit - I only mention it because there is some grand silent conspiracy among graduate students to pretend we're all flawless geniuses who never skimp on work and always start our research months in advance. I spent my time in graduate school freaking out that I was so behind all my peers and then having my advisor tell me that I had actually done far more work that other people. It's an annoying game but it's apparently required.
posted by winna at 2:37 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I haven't been a student for many years, but I do remember how difficult it was starting to read the journal papers. My field was physics, but I think this problem is similar in all fields.

First, journals, because of space limitations, insist that the contibutors be as succinct as possible (I've been chastised by referees for being to lengthy). The major approach in making papers short is refer to others who have worked and those who are currently working in your field. This means that you have to do the grunt work and read those references (which iterates into reading the references of the references). This isn't easy, and it is time consuming, but once you've assimilated the information, you'll find reading the current literature not so daunting. Above all, don't be afraid to ask your instructor about things that puzzle you. Sometimes, just being told what an abbreviation means can get you off the mark.

A suggestion: Starting off takes great concentration. Go to the library and work there. The information you need will be more readily accessible, and you won't find yourself easily distracted.
posted by Hilbert at 3:23 PM on January 16, 2010

Best answer: I'm a professor in cognitive science. This is how I tell my students who are beginning to learn how to read journal articles:

1. Read the abstract first. The abstract is great because it summarises all the important bits for you, and it will tell you where the article is heading. If there are things you don't understand in the abstract (vocabulary words, references to theories, etc) it is a cue that those things will be worth looking up, because they are going to be vitally important throughout the article. You will find that for many things, wikipedia is actually a pretty good resource -- it misses out a ton, but will give you the gist, which is what you want at this stage.

2. Read the conclusion. This will tell you almost the same as what was in the abstract, but will really emphasise what the authors thought was the important take-home message. Use this knowledge to guide you as you read the rest of the article: you should be thinking as you read, "How does this part feed into the author's overall point?"

3. Then look at the figures. As was mentioned earlier, they are often clearer than paragraphs of text will be, and will tell you quickly what the major findings are. If you understand the figures, you can use them to guide your reading of the actual article. If you don't understand them (which is much more common, since after all you haven't read the article!) note what you don't understand. e.g., what does that label on the y axis mean? Clearly this is going to be a measure of some importance. Keep your eyes open for mentions of it.

4. Now skim the introduction. Psychology articles generally have a lot of review, and you'll find as you read a lot that you can skim this more and more. But it's great when you're starting out because you can get the lay of the land better. Don't obsess about looking up other references at this point -- in fact, don't get any. Make a note of which ones seem to be cited quite often or seem very important, but it's more important that you understand this article than that you understand the next one too. Instead, read it to the point that you can make outline bullet points of the form:
* phenomena X has been observed
* research group A says it is because Y
* research group B says it is because Z
* research group C says it is an artifact
You won't understand everything in the intro at this point. That's okay. Make comments in the margins of things you don't understand or have questions on.

5. Now read the method. Don't try to understand every little detail at this point. You should focus on (a) what the task was; and (b) what the dependent and independent variables were. Make sure you understand it to the point that you could describe it to somebody in plain English in a few sentences. e.g., "They took participants and gave them a set of categorisation tasks with stimuli that varied along several features. They measured reaction time to categorise new objects with similar features, as well as number of trials to 100% performance." (or whatever). That's all you need at this point.

6. Now look at the figures again, and read the surrounding text in the results. Again, you should extract the main point: "subjects had faster reaction time to categorise the objects when they were in the condition where the experimenters told them how to do so." Don't get bogged down in details at this point, although it's very tempting to do, since results are all details.

7. Read the discussion. Here is where the authors talk about limitations of their study, so pay careful attention to that bit. And here is also where they talk about implications, which is generally (I think) one of the more interesting parts. Think critically about whether you agree, whether you think they're missing things, etc. Make notes in the margins.

8. Iterate through steps 2-7 again, reading at a greater level of detail. It's a lot easier to pick up flaws or details in the study the second time around, once you already know the gist of what they did, why they did it, and what conclusions they're drawing.

The important thing here is to not get sucked into too much detail the first time through.

I also highly recommend k8t's suggestion of making a table and writing the results. It will really help to guide you through these steps, and will be invaluable later as you try to remember who said what when you are citing things yourself.
posted by forza at 3:34 PM on January 16, 2010 [14 favorites]

I agree that having taken stats will help you to better synthesize the super-technical methodology/results sections, plus identify anything problematic if it's a research study. And ALWAYS look up words you don't recognize, because trying to understand them from context will get you pretty much nowhere (these types of papers are written with the assumption that you "should" already know all of the terms, so you will never find a sentence like, "The psychotic symptoms associated with the subjects who had listened to 'The Song That Doesn't End' for equal to or greater than 24 hours were idiopathic, or, could not be attributed to any known cause").

I used to use this method:
- read the abstract closely
- read the article over quickly (not skimming, but trying to get the gist) once; leave pen and highlighter on table and do not touch them
- then go back and highlight during the second read (since you sometimes can't really tell what the "important parts" are until you're done reading it)
- then make notes/outlines last.

I wonder if it would help, too, to consider what kind of learner you are. If you do great with reading, then you're set! If you do better with auditory comprehension, maybe tape yourself reading the article and then listen to it. If you need to make bulleted lists as you go along, or write notecards, or need to imagine visual representations of what happens in the article, etc.--maybe experimenting with different sensory tactics might help you hit on what will really work for you.
posted by so_gracefully at 3:35 PM on January 16, 2010

Ask the other grad students if they are having as much trouble as you are!

If they are, then it is normal. On the other hand, if it is just you, you might need to read some undergraduate textbooks so you can become more familiar with the terms and concepts which are standard in the field.
posted by twblalock at 4:19 PM on January 16, 2010

I'm a psych grad student too. I think forza's method is great, and I just wanted to echo the sentiment that it gets a lot easier. When I started doing heavy lit review (while I was applying to grad school and prepping for interviews), I had a really hard time slogging through all the articles I felt like I needed to read. As I read more and more though, it got a lot easier. I'd say it probably takes me only about 20% of the time to fully digest an article that it took me when I started.

Also, I've been told by a great many people that it's wise to start compiling your personal reference library now. Using Zotero, or EndNote or (my personal favorite), Sente, you can really get a jump on your quals/comps. I know they're probably a long way off right now, but if you use the tagging and note-taking capabilities of some sort of reference management software, you'll be much better prepared for any papers you need to write and much more familiar with the articles you've already tackled.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 4:27 PM on January 16, 2010

As others have said, reading papers in psychology can be hard. It's not just you.

Don't just read papers straight through - read the abstract carefully, read the intro, look over the lit review, skim the methods and results, look at the graphs, and read the discussion/conclusion. Knowing now the sweeping conclusions the authors are drawing, go back and read the method and results more closely to see how good the evidence really is. Instead of taking the results as inevitable or obvious, imagine how else the results could have turned out - if you can't do that, you probably haven't understood the paper.

When reading "A was significantly different from B", look past the p-value to see how large the difference actually was. Conversely, if "A was not different from B", keep in mind that it could be due to low statistical power to find an effect. Graphs with error bars are probably your best bet for understanding the data.
posted by parudox at 8:44 PM on January 16, 2010

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