Making Sense of It All: Effective Reading

What are some tips for reading academic material effectively?
What are some time-saving hints for making effective notes?
How many notes are enough?

After searching for relevant books, journal articles and even websites, you’re likely to be facing a pile of material. There are a number of things you can do to ensure that you read and take notes efficiently. Don’t worry if some of the material you have found covers the same ground. Re-reading similar information written by different authors helps to reinforce your understanding. One of the benefits of using a number of information sources is that you’ll find some writers provide greater detail, are more interesting or more understandable than others. This guide will show you some effective ways to read and organise your material.

How to read academic work

Reading an academic book or journal article takes concentration. It’s easy to get frustrated when you find a book difficult to understand at the first sitting. Reading academic work isn’t like flipping through a magazine or even a work of fiction; academic work takes more time and effort. In some cases you may need to read a section of an article or book a number of times to fully understand it. To help clear your mind and focus your concentration, try using the mind mapping technique. For intensive reading, read section by section or a few pages at a time. Read each section a few times over and make notes. If you are still finding the information difficult to understand, find other sources on the same topic. Go back to introductory books and then return to your original source for another try. However, don’t discount the fact that what you are reading may be poorly written. Just because it is published doesn’t mean it is well written. Remember this yourself in your own writing; long-winded sentences packed with long words don’t make good writing or good reading. Look around for more clearly written pieces on the same topic by other authors.

Finding relevant information: Let’s go skimming

If you feel there are too many books and articles on your topic, there is a quick way to determine which ones are useful. The quick reading or scanning technique is called skimming. It isn’t meant to replace actual reading, but should be used to filter out what information is relevant to your essay. It is important to read with a purpose; keep the essay topic and your essay plan in mind. Refer to your plan and look out for keywords as you scan your material. The first thingtodoistofindout:

  • when your material was published
  • where it was published.

It is easy to overlook this and end up using out-of-date material or information that applies to another country. For example, it is useless to include the unemployment rate from a source written in 1985 if you are discussing current rates of unemployment. The place of publication is also important, as you could mistakenly apply information about another country to your own.To skim read effectively:

  • For a book, check the table of contents and the index to find relevant parts. Read only the introduction and conclusion of a chapter, as this will give you a good idea of what the author is saying. If it looks promising, then read the first and last sentences of each paragraph.
  • For a journal article or book chapter, read the abstract, introduction, subheadings and conclusion to determine its relevance. If necessary, read the first and last sentences of each paragraph.

Remember it is often unnecessary to read a whole book or even a whole book chapter. Only certain sections may be relevant to your needs. Warning: skimming is a method to help you find relevant material quickly. It isn’t a substitute for detailed reading and analysis of that material.