Strategies for reading in college
September 11, 2014 11:31 AM   Subscribe

What are the best strategies for reading in college, and actually comprehending what you're reading to make connections? How do people read hundreds of pages a week and comprehend it all?
posted by markbao to Education (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
For me the trick is relatively short bursts. I read when I'm alert, and put the book down as soon as I start to feel like I'm no longer absorbing it well, even if I only got through 10% of my goal for the day. I take notes in the margins as I read, and highlight/underline key passages.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:37 AM on September 11, 2014

The only way I was ever able to do this was by taking notes while reading. Reading closely, re-reading, highlighting and reading the highlights, all of that stuff didn't work a damn for me. But taking summary notes worked like a charm because I could remember something I wrote a lot easier than something I read.
posted by griphus at 11:39 AM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Be selective. What worked best for me was to skim the material to get a sense of what parts were the most important for whatever it was I was using the reading for, and then go back to those sections as necessary.

Taking notes while reading was helpful for retention as well.
posted by AndrewInDC at 11:39 AM on September 11, 2014

Talk about it with someone, even if they're only barely interested.
posted by empath at 11:43 AM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My advice pertains to most reading in the Humanities; I can't speak for hard sciences. It also probably doesn't work for hundreds of pages of literature.

The first step is to become intimately familiar with the structure of the texts you're reading. Most academic writing follows a pretty set structure.

Read and learn to love the introduction. This is where the author spells out for you, usually quite simply if you can pick it out, what he or she is going to say. There's usually a bit where he or she says things like "In section one, I will outline the changes in the economic structure in the prewar period, and how it affected popular culture, and then in section two I will say...." The thesis, the layout. That is your road map.

Then, each chapter/section/whatever also has an introduction. Read that to pull out that sections thesis. Then skim the heck out of the paragraphs and paragraphs of specific evidence the author fills his or her chapters with. Just enough to get vague bullet points.

I read from topic sentence to topic sentence, making sure I for sure know them, and understand them, so I know the point of the book. Then, if I have time, I'll read the details he or she uses to prove their points, but only if I have time (which I never do.)
posted by Grandysaur at 11:43 AM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would definitely take notes and/or highlight while reading. I would also get a sense of how closely professors' lectures followed the textbook. If it was basically a good outline, I might skip that reading entirely if I made it to all the classes...or at least save it for last.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 11:44 AM on September 11, 2014

Also, what are you reading exactly? Different types of classes will have different requirements for what aspects of the reading you're expected to absorb and comprehend and be able to write on and discuss. I was an English Literature major and the way I read novels was quite different than how I read academic text, or philosophical writing, or history or so on. There was no way in hell I could've even finished the material if I didn't know why I was reading it.
posted by griphus at 11:44 AM on September 11, 2014

I always took notes on the pages I was reading. All my journal articles and books were marked to pieces, but it worked for me.

Also, I agree with Grandysaur above. I used to read the abstracts, introduction, intros to the various sections, and skim, skim, skim from there. If something was relevant to my research or especially important, then I read it in full.

If I'd actually read everything I was supposed to in graduate school, I would almost certainly still be there.
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:49 AM on September 11, 2014

For non-literature, I usually underline while I am reading then go back and write up a summary of each chapter, with level of detail depending on the importance and difficulty of the material. In well structured books I will often simply transcribe chapter and section headings then try to encapsulate the gist of what the author was saying. Copying down the superstructure that the author lays out can help me realize how they saw their argument.

This technique has a huge advantage when working on the same topic over the course of years. I can search my OneNote for a paper I don't recall reading, see what I took away from it a few years ago and it will quickly refresh my mind.
posted by shothotbot at 11:54 AM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with many of the other posts - in undergrad and graduate school, I always took notes on whatever I was reading. Actually writing down the major themes/ideas, etc. somehow made it stick more in my mind. If it's a scientific paper, read the abstract, introduction and conclusion/results for sure, skim the rest for details - it will depend on what your assignment is too. For my homework assignments that required reading numerous chapters of a hefty book - I typically skimmed these, took notes on the major ideas I would need to know and understand. Sometimes there's not enough time to read and absorb everything in the syllabus.
posted by FireFountain at 11:56 AM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: For me highlighting and underlining is a distraction, even more so when I come back to a text and find myself skipping to marked text without really absorbing the content. The second-best way for me is, whilst reading, to write a very short - less than a sentence - summary of each paragraph's main point in the margin.

The very best way is to summarise the article or chapter in coherent notes, but this obviously takes much longer.

And, yeah, when you know what you're looking for, then skimming.

This is for non-science reading.
posted by tavegyl at 12:00 PM on September 11, 2014

Best answer: For really dense Euro-Crit texts, I used to keep a "Dialectic Notebook". For each thing, I'd start with a blank left-right spread, and add title and etc at the top of the left page (in MLA format, so it would be handy for later). Then I'd try to outline the argument on the left page of each spread. On the right facing page I'd jot down any queries, vocab words, connections to other texts, avenues for further research, etc.

When I was done, I'd have a pretty good grasp of the text, plus a few other nuggets for essay topics, discussion brownie points in class, whatever.

For my English 100 students, I assign a structured "Reader Response" for each reading assignment: Quote the thesis and briefly discuss each of the following: Audience, Rhetorical Strategies, Structure/Style, Personal Response, Notes for Follow Up. It's not quite a summary (we're reading to model structure and conventions, too), but it encourages close, active reading. You could create something similar for yourself, with appropriate headings and focus.
posted by notyou at 12:10 PM on September 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: My comments are restricted to academic humanities reading. I am a historian and I do a lot of this sort of reading. I've found this works and I wish someone had told me all this straightforwardly, much earlier. I think "reading" should really be an umbrella term that covers at least three passes. For maximum results, space these three passes out by some amount of time, say a week. Everyone's different - take what you find useful from my approach.

1) skim (Grandysaur's strategies, above, are sound) and erect the framework of the article or book in your head or on paper. If you're versed in standard structures of an article or a book, this should take no more than 5-15 mins (article) or 15-60 mins (book). Decide not only what the text is about, but specify to yourself what you're interested in about it, and most importantly why. Writing down what you expect to get out of it will be a helpful touchstone for later passes. It is also fine to decide at this point that you need read no further, but you will have a solid sense of what this text is about and how it says it, which will get you through most seminars - and it will only have taken you an hour or less.

one week later

2) Once you've decided what you want out of this book, you'll be able to narrow down what parts you actually want to "read". Go back to the thing you wrote which says why you decided to read this text, and keep it in mind as you start. Take notes in margins, flags, highlight for visual reminders, so you can find important things later. No one can really teach you how to do this part, because everyone works and recalls differently. People develop their own codes, abbreviations, symbols. But if you're just starting out, this sort of active reading will feel unnatural. If you want to kick butt at reading in a year or so, slow down now and force yourself to write 2-5 summary words (yes, words!) next to each paragraph (this will force you to distill, and in the act of distillation you actually learn). At the end of each chapter write one sentence describing what the chapter was about on the first page of the chapter. This part can take anywhere from 1-6 hours, or more if you're really going for it. I don't take any notes on paper at this stage, only on the book or article I'm reading. So I can take this sort of reading anywhere. Pro-tip: grass, coffee-shop, beach.

1-3 weeks later

3) Take notes - this will be at the computer, or desk, whatever your note system. Go back through all your annotations. You'll find that the distillation summaries you made in the margins will bring back the larger paragraph point remarkably well. You'll probably also find that you enthusiastically highlighted or commented on things that you now no longer find interesting or important. That's fine - this is a kind of editing. That's why you need to take the time away from it. Note down the big ideas, and transcribe key quotes. Plot out a kind of map of the book (chapter 1 says this, chapter 2 says this). And go back to the thing you wrote in your first pass, where you specify what you hope to gain out of the book and why. Did you get it? What was it? Also, note down at least one (and probably more) references which came out of the book which you want to follow up on, and add that to your reading queue. I give myself no more than 1 hour for this part, because it's very easy to write endless notes or transcribe huge chunks of text. Having the time limit forces you to be judicious, and again, distill.

pro-tip, if you are super-nerd, after this last stage, you can set reminders to revisit your notes 3 weeks, 3 months, 1 year, 2 years and 3 years later.

so, to answer your question, comprehension and recollection is really all about the act of distilling (marginalia), spaced repetition (giving yourself time between passes for thoughts to marinate, priorities to clarify, and memories to form fully), and having a bunch of written notes after the fact which you have produced, with your own sweat and blood, so that future-you can come back to them and maybe refine them as needed. The connections between books come out of this act of revisitation, as the landscape of your reading widens and is traversed again and again, and over time you'll find more and more paths seem to keep circling back to the best of the books you read.

Edit to say: if you only have a week, pass 1 will suffice for your seminar, but if you care about the connections, there's no shortcut.
posted by idlethink at 12:14 PM on September 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Psychologists have studied learning; here's a report on it and here's the summary.

"Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of 'low utility.'"

"...more effective to dip into the material at intervals over time. .. The second learning strategy that is highly recommended by the report’s authors is practice testing. ... Research shows that the mere act of calling information to mind strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:47 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Get enough sleep and don't be distracted.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:04 PM on September 11, 2014

This is only tangentially related, but I did most of my reading for classes at the university gym on a recumbent bike. Exercise improves learning and memory, and it's a great way to fit exercise into a packed-tight course load.
posted by Andrhia at 7:05 PM on September 11, 2014

Once when I was in school, an older, wiser person who had been through college and then gone back for a masters as an older adult told me a special secret: no one reads everything - they skim.

Learning to skim judiciously was the most, best thing I did for myself and my grades when I was in school.
posted by latkes at 8:21 PM on September 11, 2014

I went to a college with a ton of reading. i managed to muddle through. Taking naps was essential. I could have taken better notes.

Years later, I was listening to an interview with Harold Bloom. The interviewer asked if he really read x-zillion books/week. Bloom said that he did and commented more on the pace. Then he, almost as an afterthought, said that his pace for re-reading was much much slower. The interviewer probed a little deeper, and what I took away from it is that Bloom basically takes a fast first pass to get a high level feeling, and then goes back and re-reads, perhaps multiple times, the sections he thinks needs his attention.
posted by Good Brain at 9:19 AM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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