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Academic reading

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Published: 10 May 2021

Student looking through a book

One thing is common among every single higher education course, whether you’re studying FdA Tourism and Events Management or MSc Public Health - reading.

At university, you’ll be asked to read a huge amount of material. That could be anything from short academic journals to whole textbooks.

But don’t be intimidated. One of the joys of university life is digging deep into the subjects you’re passionate about, reading the thoughts and theories of people that came before you and even starting to contribute yourself.

We’re here to give you some tips and tricks for reading, and understanding, academic texts so you can succeed in your degree.

Adapt your reading

To get the most out of whatever it is you’re looking at, it’s best to adapt how you read to the task and how much time you have to complete it.

When writing an assignment, it's important to take in a lot of information from the texts you’ve been given.

That’s because detail is extremely important here. Understanding the information, and knowing where you got it from, is key to producing a good essay.

On the other hand, if you’re working through the required reading for a lecture, you might take a different approach.

If you don’t have a lot of time to get your reading done, skimming through might be a better option.

Although it’s always best to look at the texts in the most detail you can, the aim here is to understand the subject enough that you can contribute in class.

Speed reading

This is a technique used to get through more of the text than you would otherwise. Normal reading speed is somewhere between 100 and 200 words a minute.

While this is alright, with thought, practice and effort, you can speed that up.

Pacing technique

Run your finger in a ‘Z’ shape down the text. Following a marker as you read will help you become aware of your speed. Learn how to pace read in this guide from the Speed Reading Lounge.

Going further

Read for one minute and mark the point in the text you get to. Set a target to reach that’s longer than where you got and try getting to that point in the same amount of time. Repeat this until you’ve hit your limit to start seeing improvements.

Attentive reading

Similar to the last technique. Read with the intention of understanding the text for three minutes. Write down a bullet point explaining the information then expand the amount you’re going read and repeat. This not only speeds up your reading but also helps you understand the information.

Focused reading

If you’re trying to find specific information, say for an assignment, you might not need to read an entire book just for that one reference.

In this circumstance, try setting yourself some questions, e.g.

  • What is the overall argument of the piece?
  • What are the main examples the writer gives?
  • How could this theory be applied in practice?
  • Why was the research done?

Having these questions in mind will allow you to move through the text with more purpose, rather than just reading the words for the sake of it.

Preview and review

This is a technique aimed at helping you get the most out of the information you’re looking at.

Step one

Read the ‘overview material’ - this could be the introduction, abstract, index, content, summary etc.

Step two

Skim every page for no more than 10 seconds – think about what you don’t need to read and what’s important.

Step three

Note down the most useful pages and paragraphs

Step four

Read those sections, paying close attention to the information provided

Step five

Ask yourself if you’ve got the detail you need. If not, take a break and come back to the text another time. It’s important to rest between readings otherwise you’ll tire yourself out and miss things you need to know.

For more on learning to speed read with better comprehension, check out this video from Tim Ferriss, author of ‘The 4-hour Workweek’. 

Reading at the university level is, of course, a step up from anything you’ve done before. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable.

Spend some time trying out these techniques. We’d love to hear which work for you. Share your thoughts with us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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