Understand What You Read Through Active Reading Techniques
Experts agree that active reading techniques result in improved comprehension and retention. If you are not actively engaged in reading, you won't learn or retain as much.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
It's natural to simply read a chapter from beginning to end, but it's not the most effective way to read, learn, and understand the content you're reading.
Most experts recommend active or critical reading. If you're not doing something to be actively engaged in your reading, you will probably find that you have to re-read before the test, maybe even multiple times. You won't learn or retain much if you simply read.
The vast majority of experts recommend annotating your textbooks as the best form of active reading; in other words, making notes in the margins. But this suggestion is a problem for many college students; textbooks are extremely expensive, and students want to sell them back.
Because annotating is so highly recommended, here are some suggestions for the textbook issue:
- Seriously consider not selling your textbooks. Yes, it's a tremendous sacrifice not to recoup your huge investment in textbooks, but it may pay off in better grades. You might also consider trying to sell your books privately to other students or through an online auction site instead of at your campus bookstore. You may get more value for a marked-up book through those venues than through the bookstore.
- Annotate in pencil that you can erase at the end of the semester, keeping in mind that even erased pencil will dramatically lower the book's value at buyback time.
- Look into the availability of an e-book version of the text that you can download, print out, and annotate to your heart's content. Also look at sites like iChapters for e-books and chapters.
- See the next section, which suggests taking notes outside the textbook.
What exactly do you write when you annotate? To some extent, the content of your annotations isn't as important as the active engagement of writing the notes. However, here are some suggestions:
- Thoughts on connections between this book and others you've read, both in this course and outside of it.
- Re-statements in your own words of the thesis statement of each paragraph or section.
- Definitions of unfamiliar words.
- Your own system of symbols to mark important passages (such as exclamation points -- ! -- for key points and question marks -- ? -- for points you have questions about.
- Comments of agreement or disagreement with ideas in the text.
- Your own ideas inspired by the text.
- Other examples of concepts discussed in the text.
The second-most highly recommended system for actively engaging with reading is highlighting, which, of course, comes with the same textbook-buyback problem that annotating does. Highlighting can also be less effective than annotating because students tend to highlight way too much of the text. Learn to be selective and discriminating when you highlight; otherwise, the important points won't stand out. Scholars recommend highlighting as little as 10 to 15 percent of a page and as much as 50 percent -- but certainly no more than that. If you tend to highlight toward the higher end of that range, at least try this visualization: Imagine that the words on the page are flowing into your highlighter and through your arm, into your neck, and into your brain. Surveying the chapters can also help you to be a more discriminating highlighter. Once you preview what's in a chapter, you have a much better idea of what's important enough to be highlighted.
You can also actively engage with the assigned reading by synthesizing your textbook reading with lecture notes you've taken in class. Try to integrate your notes from both sources into a "big picture" perspective. Compare the reading with class notes. What are the areas of agreement and disagreement? Where are the gaps? What part of the reading did your professor stress in lectures? This approach is especially helpful when you know that the teacher places equal emphasis in tests on the reading and class lectures.
When the main objective of a reading assignment is a written response or writing assignment about it, two effective techniques for actively engaging in the reading are brainstorming and freewriting.
Brainstorming entails making a list of everything you can think of about the reading and your reaction to it. What do you already know about this topic? How do you feel about it? What is new for you? This brainstormed list can be a jumping-off point for a paper about the assigned reading.
The idea behind freewriting is to just sit down and write for 15 minutes straight. The first step is closely akin to brainstorming. Write down as many thoughts about the reading as you can, but instead of putting them down in a list format, write them roughly in the form of sentences and paragraphs. Pay no attention to writing correctly, and don't go back to make revisions. Simply endeavor to get as many words down about the reading as possible within a period of about 15 minutes, trying not to pause. The resulting piece of writing most likely will be a throwaway, but it might contain some good ideas that you can use in the piece of writing assigned about the reading.
Reading techniques vary a bit by subject. Here are a few tips for reading texts in specialized areas:
Math: Read the text in order because math competency builds on what you've already learned. Pay attention to illustrations. Make notes of formulas, proofs, theorems, definitions, and the like. Note cards are great for this purpose. Work as many sample problems as you can, even if they're not assigned as homework. Allot extra time for reading a math book if you are not strong in math.
History: Look for timelines and summaries of important events. Make particular note of causes of historical occurrences, as well as their outcomes. Does the author present competing interpretations for these causes and effects? See if the reading conveys a feel for the historical period it discusses. Try to discern the social context of the period. Practice comparing various historical periods. Pay special attention to maps and illustrations.
Literature: Devote particular attention to the six standard elements of novels and stories: characters, setting, time, problem or conflict, events, and solution or resolution.
Final Thoughts on Active Reading
When you're ready to take your active reading to the next level, read our companion article, Advanced Active Reading to Learn Key Concepts.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.