Strategies for efficient reading

It can be challenging to find enough time for all the reading you need to do at uni. However, by staying organised and using the right reading strategy, you can get more out of the time you have...
by Clinton Bell, Tami Castillo, and Damian Gleeson

Getting organised

Before you start, you should plan what you’re going to read. Some readings may be assigned by your lecturer, but you’ll also be expected to read independently for assessment tasks to revise or help you understand your subject.

Make a note of what you need to read, and set aside time to do so. Prioritise readings by importance as well as due date - some readings are essential, while others may be helpful but not strictly necessary. You should also work out how you will access the readings - it might be hard to borrow an important textbook just before an exam!

For many units, the Library publishes reading lists which can help you find and access your readings. If you sign in you can, make notes and mark off the ones you’ve completed. If you’re reading for an assessment, it’s a good idea to write down the publication details (title, authors, publication date, etc.) of what you’ve read. You’ll need them later for your reference list.

There are different ways to read a text, depending on what you want to get out of it. Usually you want to do one of three things: get a general understanding of a topic, find a specific piece of information, or learn something in detail. Using the right strategies for each can save you a lot of time!

Getting a general understanding

Sometimes you need to understand the general ideas behind something, but don’t need to know all the details. In this case you can skim over parts of the text instead of reading every word. You might also do this to help you decide whether you should take the time to read something in detail, for example when researching for an assignment.

Many texts provide an overview of the important ideas for you. Look for an introduction, abstract, or executive summary at the start, and a conclusion or summary at the end. You can also look at the section headings or table of contents to get an idea of what the text covers.

Another approach would be to read the first paragraph of each section and the first sentence or two of each paragraph. Usually the main idea of each section and paragraph is presented at the start, so this will let you get most of the meaning without getting into details.

Finding specific information

If you’re only looking for a specific piece of information, you don’t want to have to read a bunch of other stuff to find it. Fortunately, most texts have tools which help you skip to the information you need.

For most electronic documents, you can find a word or phrase by pressing Control+F on Windows or Command+F on a Mac. For paper textbooks, use the index at the back of the book to find the right page - it lists the concepts in the book with the pages they are mentioned on. If there’s no index use the table of contents and the section headings to find the right general area, then read in detail.
It may also help to use a reference work instead of your normal textbook. Reference works are designed for quickly looking up information, instead of reading from start to finish. Dictionaries and encyclopaedias are examples, but there but also more specialised reference works such as drug handbooks for nurses or databases of materials for engineers.

Learning content in detail

Often you will need to develop a detailed understanding of what you’ve read. In this case you do need to read all of the text carefully, but it can be useful to start by reading for general understanding, like we discussed above. Once you understand the concepts, you can go back and read more thoroughly - it’s easier to remember the details that way.

Detailed reading can take a long time, so make sure you plan for it. It’s also a good idea to set aside time to revise, since it’s hard to remember everything from one reading.

For more on the different reading styles, you can check out our quick study guide or have a look at these questions to help you build effective reading strategies from the ground up! You can also book into a Library workshop via the Library Class Booking System (search for ‘reading’ to find relevant workshops), or chat to a Learning skills adviser at your Library’s Research & Learning Point for more advice.

Happy reading!

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