What can I do when I don't understand what I'm reading?

To succeed in your studies, it is essential to read often and widely. This can be quite challenging when you're encountering ideas, language and ways of writing which are unfamiliar.

Strategies for understanding: adapting to the culture

Academic disciplines have their own specific conventions, of which their own special language is one. Your reading may seem quite confusing to begin with as you learn and adapt to the discipline. Disciplines, however, are simply the systems people practising in the area use to classify and communicate particular knowledge.

Here are some strategies to increase your understanding.

  • Start by reading introductory texts and course books for your discipline. Pay attention to the tone of the text, the vocabulary used, the style used for referencing and so on. Make notes as you go, paying particular attention to definitions.
  • Seek out professional associations or peer-reviewed journals that relate to your academic discipline. You can learn about vocabulary, critical approaches and referencing styles from these. The internet and Library are good places to look.
  • Throughout the semester, keep a glossary of specific terms used in your discipline. Subject specific dictionaries are a great resource for helping to decode important concepts and ideas and providing the precise meaning of a term. There are many different ones available for a range of disciplines. Check the Library if you don't own one.
    Review and revise the definitions in your glossary as your understanding of their meaning and use develops.
  • Use the appropriate and specific language in the right way in assessment tasks.
  • Make yourself aware of the various critical approaches most often associated with your discipline. For instance, in Education you are likely to encounter theories of constructivism, while in Business and Economics you might come across about Taylorism and strategic management. Nursing may see you encountering a more holistic approach to patient care than is typical in other medical models.

Connect with your learning community

You don't have to figure it all out by yourself - frustration can simply impede further progress for some. Contact your lecturer, tutor and on-line study group to help clarify any misunderstandings or difficulties. Your subject will have a MUSO discussion list on which you can pose questions, express understandings and clarify what you mean, and can be a good avenue for sorting out your confusions.

Barriers to effective reading

Sometimes it is possible to get lost with your reading because you haven't considered the purposes for your reading. If you know why you are reading, you can take appropriate actions to suit. See How can I be more strategic with reading? for further information on reading for purpose.

Your energy levels can have an effect on your understanding. Be aware of your energy peaks so that you can optimise your reading times. Your insight will help you plan appropriate times for managing your reading. This self-awareness will also, of course, explain why you can't always understand what you're reading if you're undertaking your assignment at the last minute.

Check out Language and Learning Online for support in overcoming reading problems such as maintaining concentration, reading comprehension, getting motivated and limited vocabulary.

If you're struggling with the amount of reading you're doing, see How can I be more strategic with reading?