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How can I be more strategic with reading?

Read widely and often

Regardless of the course you are studying, you will find that learning at university involves a lot of reading. You will find your lecturer has directed you to a Unit Reader and/or to resources online in your subject MUSO site. These are an essential part of your course and your lecturer has put careful thought into choosing them. To succeed in your studies, it is essential to read these. But you should not limit yourself to this minimum set of readings. It is a good idea to explore other resources and engage in wider reading to develop your knowledge and understanding of the key issues informing your subject.

Some people will immerse themselves in their studies, reading everything supplied and pursuing interesting materials they find in their research. Others, however, find themselves overwhelmed, asking how they are supposed to cover all the material supplied, let alone the extra stuff they're supposed to do.

Here is a quiz question about reading. See if your response would have a better or worse impact on your learning outcomes.

mpower gameYou are struggling to cope with the amount of reading involved in your subjects. Do you?
Investigate what strategies or activities there are that could help you cope better.
All students have the same workload and it's OK not to cover everything.
Prioritise your reading.

The answer here is it to be strategic.

Strategic reading

In order to manage the amount of reading you must do and to make sure that you are reading efficiently, you will need to adopt effective strategies.

Consider the purposes for your reading to determine why you are reading - sometimes it will be because you're looking for information; other times you'll be taking a more evaluative approach, analysing ideas.

Consider what actions suit the purpose of your reading: for instance, making brief notes for revision, drawing a graphic representation of the structure of a text in order to gain an overview of it, or re-reading a particularly challenging passage to get a clearer understanding.

Always read with a purpose in mind.

Be active

  • Be aware of which style of reading you are employing:
    • Skimming provides general idea or gist of text. You need to focus on the table of contents, chapter headings, preface or introduction and index. Read the first and last sentence of paragraphs to determine if you need to read more closely.
    • Scanning is used to locate precise information. You identify key expressions and look for them in chapter headings, subheadings and the text itself.
    • Detailed reading enables you to gain a deeper understanding. It can be combined with skimming and scanning for greater efficiency. Take note of the main point in each paragraph and use Post-it notes, highlighting or underlining for key information.
    • Revision reading confirms your knowledge and understanding. You read rapidly and summarise the main points.
  • Be aware of the author's bias or point of view and consider the purpose of the text. Take a critical approach to reading.
  • Take notes, ask questions, underline, highlight. Be an active reader.
  • Work through Reading in Language and Learning Online to help you become an effective reader - especially for humanities and social science subjects - and make useful notes with a purpose.

Here are the basics.

  • For your regular, ongoing study of course topics: focus on the week's objectives. Find answers to those objectives in the course material. This means you do not read every word of your articles. Instead, quickly search through the article to see if it covers the area you're interested in (this is called skimming and scanning). If it's relevant, then you can spend time looking through it but only to find the answer to your question. Remember, you will often be assessed not so much on the content of articles, but on your mastery of the learning objectives for your subject.
  • For your assignments: develop your research approaches. Again, read with a purpose in mind, based on your analysis of the topic (reading for detail and revision). You may be searching for representative definitions and views; you may be looking for material to support your argument; you may be looking for divergent views.

Awareness of genre or structure

Another approach to improving your reading skills and learning is to develop an awareness of the genre or the structures authors use in their writing. You may have noticed that pieces of text can be structured in regular and predictable ways. A newspaper article, for example, will consist of a title (usually written to catch your attention so that you read on), and short paragraphs consisting of one or two sentences, making it easier to ascertain the points being made. If you're aware of such structures, then you'll know where to look for what you want. This makes for more efficient reading (and note taking

For example, a student may be looking for up-to-date information about the risk profile for breast cancer. Instead of reading every word in every article that looks interesting, it is better to read through the abstract for the article to see if it might be useful for the assignment.

The abstract tends to be presented in predictable ways. Consider the argument structure the writers have used here in sample Abstract 1, a review of literature. The text of the abstract is given in the first column and analysed in the structure and argument columns.

Abstract 1

Abstract content Structure Argument
Summary
A woman's build, the risk of breast cancer and its subsequent prognosis seem to be related.
At the beginning Introducing the topic under consideration
In most but not all case-control and prospective cohort studies, an inverse relationship has been found between weight and breast cancer among premenopausal women. The research issue(s) under consideration Previous studies have found this…
However, most large epidemiological studies have found that overweight or obese women are at increased risk of developing postmenopausal breast cancer. …but other studies have found this…
It is suggested that higher body mass index is associated with a more advanced stage of breast cancer at diagnosis in terms of tumour size The possible explanation This may be the case…
but data on lymph node status is not so consistent. All treatment modalities for breast cancer such as surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormonal treatment may be adversely affected by the presence of obesity. The problem with this …but there may be other explanations for…
The overall and disease-free survival is worse in most but not all studies of prognosis of obese pre- and postmenopausal women with breast cancer. In conclusion And when you look at it in detail, the situation isn't great for obese women with breast cancer, regardless of pre- or postmenopausal status.

Source: Carmichael, AR & Bates, T 2004, 'Obesity and breast cancer: a review of the literature', The Breast, vol. 13, pp. 85-92.

You may notice a similar structure in Abstract 2.

Abstract 2

Abstract content Structure Argument
In 1968 the food flavour-enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) was first linked through case reports to a series of transient and benign symptoms collectively known as the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). At the beginning Introducing the issue at hand, the controversy
Since that time, clinical trials have failed to conclusively demonstrate that MSG is in fact the causative agent, and a physiologic mechanism has not been elucidated. The issue under consideration… What the research actually shows…
In addition, although some animal studies have concluded that MSG can cause brain lesions in rodents under controlled conditions, no toxic effects have been observed in animal studies when MSG is administered as a food additive. …not only that but look at what further studies show
Despite continuing controversy concerning the regulatory status of MSG in the United States, the data support the safety of MSG in food. In conclusion In fact, there is no problem with MSG.

Source: Taliaferro, PJ 1995, 'Monosodium glutamate and the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: a review of food additive safety', Journal of Environmental Health, vol. 57, no. 10, pp. 8-

Note: These abstracts are presented in such a way as to review the literature. Their purpose is to evaluate the evidence from current research, and then reach some conclusion on the issue of interest.

Notice that the authors have produced an argument - they've taken a position, and supported it with certain evidence in a deductive way.

If you were looking for resources on the risk profile for breast cancer, or the evidence for and against MSG as a food additive, then you'd know these articles were useful simply by scanning the abstracts to determine what they're discussing, what the authors' slant is, and what evidence has been deployed to support their conclusions. You'd then scan the content of the articles looking, for example, for the key evidence used to support the conclusion.

You might then be in a position to evaluate it.

Pay attention to the structures of different kinds of texts to help your survey for useful information.

Develop your own approach

Develop your own methods for reading more strategically so that your learning is more efficient and takes less time. You may like to look at advice on researching for assignments and organising your research.

Further guidance:

  • Managing a quantity of reading material for research students as well as coursework students.
  • Enhance your reading skills in Learning inspirations covers tips to get you started with your reading, along with dealing with paper and electronic sources and using audio reading.
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