Advanced Active Reading to Learn Key Concepts
Students can be more actively engaged in reading, enhancing learning of key terms, by using techniques of questioning, outlining, and note-taking.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Are you an active reader? If you've read our article, Understand What You Read Through Active Reading Techniques, you may want to further develop your reading skills. To become even more actively engaged in your reading and to enhance your learning of key terms, you can employ techniques of questioning, outlining, and note-taking.
This article looks at the Q (Question) and first R (Read) of the SQ3R/4R method. (Learn more about the SQ3R/4R reading method at How To Read A Textbook (Kishwaukee College) and How To Read A Textbook (Cuesta College.)
Other techniques include:
- P2R (also called PRR): A shortened version of SQ3R/4R that includes Preview, Read, Review/Recall.
- REDW: Read, Examine, Decide, Write. Recommended only for short readings as it is very time consuming.
Now, consider these more advanced techniques for engaging with your reading:
Ask questions: As you are completing an assigned reading, make up questions to ask yourself about the reading and answer them as you read. Asking and answering questions is a proven way to cement the reading in your mind. If you're wondering how to go about making up questions, try these methods:
- Use the questions that journalists answer in newspaper stories: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. As you come to a concept in the text, determine which of these questions best applies and then answer it through your reading. Examples: Who is Aeneas, the protagonist of Roman poet Vergil's epic poem, The Aeneid? What do snakes symbolize in The Aeneid? Where was Queen Dido's kingdom? When does The Aeneid take place? Why do the pagan gods play certain roles in The Aeneid? How does The Aeneid compare with Homer's Odyssey?
- Rephrase chapter headings as questions.
- Put yourself in your professor's place and ask yourself, "What questions would my professor ask about this reading if making up a test?"
- Use the questions in the back of each chapter of your text.
Take notes: Writing down notes on your reading in a place other than the textbook itself is a way to solve the textbook-buyback problem. You can take notes in a notebook, on loose-leaf paper, on a legal pad -- or on note cards, the method we recommend. Writing reading notes on 3 x 5 index cards is a highly effective method because you can, for example, write a concept on one side of the card and a definition on the back, or a question on one side and the answer on the back. You can then use the cards to test yourself as a highly portable study.
Summarizing: If you can summarize the main ideas of a section in a chapter, that's a pretty good indication that you have actively engaged in the reading and absorbed the concepts. You can try writing your summaries on your note cards or other medium you're using for notes. If you can't summarize a section without looking back at it, you may need to read it again.
Sticky notes: Another terrific way to address the textbook-buyback issue is to take notes on sticky notes. These are an excellent compromise between writing inside your text and making notes outside because the notes will be in the book, but the pages won't be marked. The only downside is that you may use a lot of sticky notes and rack up a bit of expense. Use them to mark important pages, and on the sticky note, write the major topic of the page. Then use smaller notes to mark important passages and write your own notes and questions. Sticky notes are also fantastic for open-book tests because they can help you locate information quickly.
Outlining: You may want to develop your notes into an outline. Outlining chapters is a time-honored way to engage with and really dissect the reading. Some experts suggest that outlining is the smart way to take notes because the outline structure enables you to be selective and not repeat the entire text in your notes. To outline, write down the subheadings and the main topic of each paragraph. "I read the material and outline it so that I can read over my notes a couple of times before the exam," said one student. "There are very few people who can read a textbook and retain all the detailed information they read, and I'm not one of them. I have to put in the time, but it always pays off."
"David C.," a student who commented on a blog entry at Lifehack.org, described his reading method: "The only way I found to absorb a dense textbook was to invert it. By that I mean, I'd take a notebook, and devote a page to every proper name, number, date or concept I came across. So, using a paragraph taken from Wikipedia about the First World War as an example, if a book said on page 1 'The Entente Powers, led by France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and later Italy (from 1915) and the United States (from 1917), defeated the Central Powers, led by the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman Empires. Russia withdrew from the war after the revolution in 1917,' then I'd have pages in the note book for Entente Powers, France, Russia, UK, Italy, 1915, US, 1917, Central Powers, Austro-Hungarian Empire, German Empire and Ottoman Empire. And if on page 15 there was a discussion of French politics leading up to the war, I'd put notes summarizing that topic on the page I'd allocated already to France. Eventually, on the page allocated to 1917, I'd have notes of all the things mentioned in the book as happening in that year. It's not enough to read a textbook. You've got to reorganize it mentally in a way that demands enough thought to make it stick in the brain. This method is a simple mechanism for forcing you to do exactly that."
No matter which advanced technique you choose for engaging actively with your reading assignments, be sure to look up unfamiliar words as you read. See if your textbook has a glossary, but also keep a dictionary handy for words not in the glossary or texts with no glossary.
Final Thoughts on Advanced Reading Techniques
Occasionally, despite your best efforts and planning strategies, you may find yourself in a "reading
emergency," meaning you have a test scheduled and you have not done the reading. If you find yourself
in this position, two techniques can help you:
- Skimming: Read the chapter's introduction and conclusion. Read all chapter
sub-headings and the first and last paragraph of each section. Identify the main ideas
in each paragraph.
- Obtaining book summaries: Publishers such as Cliffs Notes and
Pink Monkey offer free study
guides and summaries of books online, with more elaborate study aids available for a price.
Use these only in a pinch and be aware that the book summaries cover mostly just literature.
Other subjects are covered but aren't geared to particular textbooks. And you still have to
do some reading.
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.