Help with focus when reading dull, dry, and lengthy scientific papers or texts please. Yet another attention deficit question.
October 18, 2012 11:10 AM   Subscribe

How do I maintain my focus and make sure my comprehension is maximized when reading (required) heavy or something I don't find terribly interesting?

Let’s just say I lack certain abilities in the area of focus and attention when I am less than interested in a topic or the reading is heavy.

I'm a pretty voracious reader in general and for pleasure. Even then I think I zoom through books and don't pick up all that I could.

Any tips?
posted by Che boludo! to Education (26 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Get as far away from a computer as you can and take copious notes as you read, by hand. It'll force you to slow down to take the note itself, and to re-read anything that doesn't immediately register so that your notes end up being coherent.
posted by griphus at 11:12 AM on October 18, 2012

Paragraph by paragraph notes* are a great technique: just little paraphrases of the argument that force you to think "do I actually understand this step in the argument?" If you jot them down in the margin of the book they also make revision a lot easier. I've heard that technique described as being like a mountain climber hammering safety-rope anchor-points into the cliff-face as s/he ascends: you make sure that if your attention wanders at any point, you don't face that fatal fall of thinking "WTF have I been reading for the last twenty pages?"

Another technique I find useful if I'm trying to plow through something that is just not meeting me half way is to read on my feet. I find walking slowly around the house while I'm reading really helps me not to drift off (I don't know why). In extreme cases I'll also read out loud while I'm doing that.

(*This obviously depends to some extent on the paragraphing style of what you're reading. Some philosophical authors write multi-page paragraphs and you'll want to make more frequent notes than that: about once or twice a page seems right for me.)
posted by yoink at 11:24 AM on October 18, 2012

Oh, and P.S. griphus's point about getting away from your computer (also known as the time-sink-from-hell) is good advice. I find that sitting in a cafe to read really helps my attention: for some reason having a bustle of noise around me actually helps me focus. YMMV, of course.
posted by yoink at 11:25 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is going to sound like a really dumb question, but I would suggest getting a tutor for the specific goal of:
Effectively reading [chemistry/biology/physics] papers
Because having a method to reading them will make it less stressful and easier to tackle. It will also make them easier to write when your time comes. There are things that need to be in any academic paper, and getting those jotted down ASAP can take you a long way toward really understanding the findings.
posted by bilabial at 11:31 AM on October 18, 2012

Paragraph by paragraph notes* are a great technique

I've tried taking notes this frequently while reading dense material (for research papers), and it has actually really hurt my comprehension: I can't stand the constant interruption of information flow; I also feel that such interruption can prevent you from grasping the "big picture" concepts that an author is trying to convey over several pages.

What has helped me is to read very slowly. When I'm reading for comprehension I try to subvocalize every word -- even "a," "the," "and" -- and I generally read no faster than I might conversationally speak.
posted by lobbyist at 11:34 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

As you read it, imagine it being spoken by a person whose voice you like. Someone who commands your attention. Would you listen to this person read their shopping list aloud? Excellent. That's a good person to imagine reading the driest text you can find.

My go-to person for this sort of task is Patrick Stewart. ANYTHING is more interesting when read by him in my mind. Other favorites: Oprah (not because I like her, but because of the precise way in which she speaks), John Malkovich, and the dude that plays Thomas the Evil Footman on Downton Abbey.

There are times I re-read a boring paragraph several times, each time imagining a different person reading it. I swear it helps me.
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:39 AM on October 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

In high school and college, when reading chemistry texts and the like, I would stop after a few paragraphs or after a major point, close my eyes and see if I could put the main point in my own words. If I can't, I either don't remember or don't undetstand and it is time to go back and read that section again. If I reached a certain level of failure, time for a nap so my brain could process what I had already read.
posted by Michele in California at 11:39 AM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

What I used to do when forced to plow through hundreds and hundreds of pages of case law (including some of the most boring subjects imaginable, like corporate tax law, or insurance law), was reading through each case twice. I would do one quick read through using a highlighter and pen to mark out the structure of the argument and the main points. Then, having an understanding of the gist of the case, it was much easier and less painful to go through the case slowly while taking notes. This way I already had a big picture overview to which I could relate the more minor points, and my mind was less likely to wander off during particularly dry sections of text.
posted by keep it under cover at 11:47 AM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't like stopping to take notes every. single. paragraph. because it's really distracting for me.

What I do instead is summarize entire papers if short, or sections/chapters of books if they're longer. 3 or 4 sentences about the supporting evidence and the conclusion is enough to make sure I've got it.

Also, if you're reading a bunch of stuff that's all connected (for a class, or a PhD, or whatever), make one document where you summarize all of the information. Makes it really easy to go back and reread what you've seen.
posted by zug at 11:49 AM on October 18, 2012

Xanax. Seriously. The only time in my life that I've been on any sort anti-anxiety medication what when I was studying for my PhD exams. Some sort of avoidance strategy would kick in whenever I'd try to study, and I'd nod off every few minutes. Xanax fixed that, I passed the exams, and I've never needed it since, going on 20 years now.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:51 AM on October 18, 2012

I do a few things. First, though normally a ridiculously fast reader, I slow down to a crawling pace with difficult or dense material. Secondly, I close the door, turn off the phone, and don't do anything else when I'm reading. Thirdly, I set a goal of reading a small number of pages -- e.g. the first section only, or the chapter, or just the statement of facts and statement of issues (in a legal brief.) Then I stop and test myself on how much I recall of what I just read. Lastly, I give myself plenty of time to get difficult reading done. For example, I may budget several days to get through it. Fourthly, I find it very helpful to mark or highlight important summary sentences or paragraphs.

Also, it is best to do this type of reading shortly after eating. Your brain literally runs out of glucose and reflective capability when several hours have elapsed since your last meal.

This sort of reading is important but really different and much harder than leisure reading, so don't judge your performance against that standard.
posted by bearwife at 12:11 PM on October 18, 2012

I hate having to stop while reading to summarize! That doesn't work for me. What does work is highlighting. I highlight passages/sentences/phrases I think really help convey the message to me. Then at the end of the chapter I go back and read only the highlights. If it doesn't make sense then I need to go back and read that section to make sure I really walk away with the true idea.
posted by xicana63 at 12:13 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Open a window or go outside.
(on the basis of conclusions from the article on the cognitive impairment effects of even moderate levels of CO2 currently appearing as a FPP)
posted by rongorongo at 12:24 PM on October 18, 2012

Read key passages out loud. If taking notes is too heavyweight and annoying for you (it is for me) verbally summarize the point of the section/paragraph/whatever. If you can't do it, go back. Go for a walk and come back. If there's something specific you really don't get after lots of effort, mark it to ask for help on it and move on.
posted by phoenixy at 12:32 PM on October 18, 2012

So, you've discovered that it is hard and often boring/impossible to read a scientific paper like you would read a novel or even a nonfiction book, and you need to build up a new set of skills to help you get the most out of reading a paper. I've been there.

You should check out Trisha Greenhalgh's series of articles entitled How To Read a Paper. I think there is a book as well, but many of her articles are available on the British Medical Journal website. Her series is focused on reading the medical literature, but it should teach you things like how to assess the validity of a methodology, how to understand the statistics in a paper and what may be missing, figuring out what a paper is really about, what is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research, etc. Good stuff.
posted by zoetrope at 1:07 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't try to summarise as I go along, but I do signpost in the margins, and I try to jot down the implications, either in terms of what they have already said ("but this contradicts . . .") or in terms of what I want to get from reading the paper ("-> don't use this with neuromuscular disorders"). Quite often I draw arrows between different paragraphs if I think they are linked.

I think interrupting the flow of what I'm reading is a good thing because it forces me to engage with the material in a deeper way and think about it as I go along, instead of passively accepting what is said. This is fundamental to reading academic literature. In an ideal world I'd read once fluidly and then once thoroughly and critically, but who has the time?

At the end I try to write a single sentence underneath the paper/chapter heading to summarise what I got from it. That could be "First demonstration that volunteers can deliver therapy as effectively as therapists" or it could be "Method - they used MEG along with fMRI to look at brain systems and time information" or it could be "Evidence showing LSVT effective in dysarthria after stroke". It's the main thing I want to take away from the paper or chapter.

Another good one is to try to pick holes in every single bit you can. There are always weak spots.

There's a load of psychology showing that the deeper we process material when we learn it, the better the recall is over the long term. So you're trying to balance efficiency (only reading once) with maximally deep processing.
posted by kadia_a at 1:38 PM on October 18, 2012

Oh, and if it's really long and you have too much to read then prioritise. Read the most important papers thoroughly.

Then, for the rest:
* Abstract
* Last two paragraphs
* Discussion
* Results
* Introduction
* Methods
You can stop at any point if you think you'd got the important bits (order may change if you're doing a literature review to look at methods, for example).

When I was writing academic stuff, the thing that surprised me was how much I needed to repeat things to make it readable and 'tell the story'. Sometimes you only want to read the happy ending.
posted by kadia_a at 1:44 PM on October 18, 2012

I found that establishing what was for me a normal number of readable pages-per-hour -- 35 in my case, though the sources were generally concerning history rather than a more technical subject -- and sticking to it was a big help. Every hour I had a defined goal.

While doing this I would keep a running sheet of brief notes going, both because writing things down goes a long way towards helping me remember things and so that I could easily access the text later. If things were really heavy I would later go back and expand relevant notes, just as a way to study something really comprehensively.

Finally, I was never big on this one, but there are those who swear that acting as though they are going to a job is the key to productive work. They get up, dress semi-formally, etc, and find themselves in the correct mindset.
posted by mr. digits at 2:28 PM on October 18, 2012

Seconding the notes thing. I taught myself to keep a "dialectic notebook" as I read dense texts.

Left page was for restating the argument as best I could; right page was for my own commentary, dictionary definitions, whatever. Usually the left pages were well-inked while the right pages were well-whitespaced.

I thought the tool encouraged closer engagement (especially the pressure to add "my own stuff" on the right page). As a bonus, the stuff on the right pages, sparse as it was, provided good fodder for questions and comments in class and essay topics.
posted by notyou at 2:59 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

nthing marking it up, if that's something that you can do with this text.

One thing that I find extremely helpful is marking with different colors:
I have red, blue, black, and green handy, and I underline with a (rough-ish*) sense that the different colors are for different aspects of what I want to be able to refer to later.

For example, if you used red to underline names, you can later scan just for names with ease, even if it's an enormous overall amount of text, and even when you have other things grouped in other colors for different reasons in the midst.

*and I say "rough-ish" because when I do it, I find it helps to not try to keep the same specifics throughout the entire book, but to switch (or not) when it feels natural-- sort of a (potential) slow change that makes individual reading sessions easier to recall. This detail might not work at all for some people

I also take notes in the same group of colors, and don't let the lines on the page restrict me: some notes form a red square, others are large with different-colored notes in much smaller print beneath and between them. If I used only one color, it would take 5 times the space.

Shut down your computer; put your phone on 'airplane mode' (so you can, say, check the clock, without getting your focus, and time, plunged into a bunch of updates on txt, &c &c &c)
posted by herbplarfegan at 3:05 PM on October 18, 2012

Practice helps a lot. Start with short sessions, and increase the time.
posted by theora55 at 3:17 PM on October 18, 2012

I'm taking a tax class and I feel your pain. Oy. What's helping me is taking notes, but also stopping to think of real-life examples or otherwise force myself to think about the material, not just move my eyes over it. I also find that getting enough sleep helps tremendously; I just can't get my head around this stuff when I'm tired.

But the biggest help? Setting a timer for 30 minutes, working for that amount of time, then taking a SHORT break before doing it again. If you can't do 30, do 20; 10 minute break, then back at it. That really helps.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 4:02 PM on October 18, 2012

Plenty of good tips accumulating above that I use, so I might repeat them, but here are some things that I do (although I read mainly legal-related texts, not scientific):

* No computer, no TV. I get even more distracted by the internet and TV when I'm in your situation.

* Walk around while reading. Like yoink, for some reason walking around makes me concentrate more.

* Pause every once in a while to explain what you just read to someone else. You don't actually need to have an actual person there to explain to. You also don't need to pretend that the person is unfamiliar with the work; in fact, it might be better to pretend that you're explaining to someone who knows the work very well. This is like Michele's point above.

* Inject a little passion. If what you're reading is really that heavy, you probably can't engage with the material enough to argue passionately about it. But you could get passionate about the dry, terrible, awkward way the author is making the points. Ideally this leads to the tip above about explaining what you just read -- "Why in the world did you say it like that! Why couldn't you say it like this! ARGH"

* Read with a pen. Underline, make notes, ask questions, etc. Highlight, and don't worry if you're highlighting everything. Map out the structure of the argument -- put outline numbering/lettering in the margins, arrows to other sections, etc., as you're going along. Make editorial comments/corrections, as if you were an editor reviewing the document. This has the benefit of giving you visual cues of progress.

* Read someone else's summary or criticism first. Best is criticism, but a summary or abstract is good too, like Cliffs Notes. The danger is becoming predisposed to the other person's views once you read the actual text. It also, of course, means you have to read yet another text. But if you're serious about reading and absorbing the material, this is a good way to do it, not only because of the comprehension assistance, but also because you are reminded that *someone* finds the work interesting, so maybe you can be interested in it too if you understood it better. Just make sure you (1) actually read the text afterwards and (2) read both the summary and the actual text with a critical eye.
posted by odin53 at 4:25 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Reading upside down had gotten me through a lot of dry physics books. It requires me to pay more attention to the words and not just glaze over them.

If you're reading digital text you might have luck with speed reading applications that break text down into individual sentences or even words. Breaking it off in smaller chunks like this can make the individual parts easier to digest.
posted by Ookseer at 7:07 PM on October 18, 2012

Ask yourself why am I reading this, and definitely prioritize to get the nuggets of what you're looking for. The outline above is one good way to do it -- I remember doing more of a abstract --> conclusions --> look at all the figures first -->go back to the results... etc thing. I think it depends on what you need to get out of it. Methodology, etc. Something for class or journal club presentation? Read for the story that makes it interesting and important. It's kind of different for everyone, but it's very different than reading a book or textbook, so practice helps.
posted by NikitaNikita at 9:04 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like the SQCP technique-- Summarize, Question, Clarify, Predict. Here's how it goes: before you start any given reading, make sure to assign yourself little checkpoints at intervals throughout (like, every section, or every 3 pages, or every 25% of the way, whatever). Mark the checkpoints with pencil stars if necessary, so you remember to do them while reading.

Then, each time you reach a checkpoint, quickly jot down on a piece of paper:
1. A brief summary of what information has been presented since last checkpoint (can be bullet points)

2. Several questions you have at this point about the material (facts,meaning, relevance, connections, critiques, whatever-- the idea is that if you don't have questions, you probably haven't been engaging with what you've read)

3. Any clarifications you think you can make in answer to these questions or the ones you asked at previous checkpoints-- so if you had an earlier critique about some experimental method, for instance, but the paper defended that method in the next section, you can note that as clarified at this point). Or if you were wondering about particular word meanings, go ahead and get the dictionary and look them up.

4. Your prediction about what information the reading will present by the next checkpoint. (Not the information itself, obviously, but what kind of info-- like "author will rebut Jones's counterargument next," or "Paper will explain the results of the experiment.") I really like this last step because it's a safeguard against your completely missing the point of the reading-- if you're diligently outlining away, but somehow totally misunderstanding the whole gist, then your prediction about what's to come in the argument will probably be wrong, and you can use that as a red flag that you need to pay more attention to the overall structure. Plus, it adds a welcome element of gamification/suspense to the process of tackling otherwise-boring readings. (You could probably even add a reward element for successful predictions-- M&Ms?)

It sounds like a cumbersome process, but you're only really talking about a couple of words per step, and it definitely beats having to loop back and reread stuff time after time.
posted by Bardolph at 8:25 AM on October 19, 2012

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