Reading is one of the most important aspects of college learning, but it can be difficult to find the time to read when there are so many other academic demands on your time. Furthermore, students may find themselves encountering kinds of texts they haven’t worked with before, like academic articles and book manuscripts. So how should you approach reading in this new environment?
To read effectively, it helps to read with a goal. This means understanding before you begin reading what you hope to achieve through your engagement with the text. Having a goal is useful because it helps you focus on relevant information and to know when you’re done reading, whether your eyes have seen every word or not.

stack of books

Some sample reading goals: 

  • To find a paper topic or write a paper;

  • To have a comment for discussion;

  • To supplement ideas from lecture;

  • To understand a particular concept;

  • To memorize material for an exam;

  • To research for an assignment;

  • To enjoy the process (i.e., reading for pleasure!).

Your goals for reading are often developed in relation to your instructor’s goals in assigning the reading, but sometimes they will diverge. The point is to know what you want to get out of your reading and to make sure you’re approaching the text with that goal in mind.
If you are looking for tips on how to develop reading goals or want to understand more deeply how they can help you save time and read more effectively, come to an ARC workshop on reading!
SQ3R is a form of reading and note taking that is especially suited to working with textbooks and empirical research articles in the sciences and social sciences. It is designed to facilitate your reading process by drawing your attention to the material you don’t know, while building on the pre-existing knowledge you already have. It’s a great first step in any general study plan. Here are the basic components:


When using SQ3R, you don’t start by reading, but by “surveying” the text as a whole. What does that mean? Surveying involves looking at all the components of the text—like its subheadings, figures, review questions, etc.—to get a general sense of what the text is trying to achieve.


The next step of SQ3R still doesn’t involve reading! Now your job is to create questions around the material you noted in your survey. Make note of the things you already seem to understand even without reading, and then write out questions about the material that seems new or that you don’t fully understand. This list of questions will help guide your reading, allowing you to focus on what you need to learn about the topic. The goal is to be able to answer these questions by the end of your reading (and to use them for active study as well!).


Now that you’ve surveyed and questioned your text, it’s finally time to read! Read with an eye toward answering your questions, and highlight or make marginal notes to yourself to draw your attention to important parts of the text.


If you’ve read your text with an eye to your questions, you will now want to practice answering them out loud. You can also take notes on your answers. This will help you know what to focus on as you review.


As you study, look back at your questions. You might find it helpful to move those questions off the physical text. For example, when you put questions on flashcards, you make it hard to rely on memory cues embedded on the page and, thus, push yourself to depend on your own memory for the answer. (Of course, drawing from your memory is what you'll need to do for the test!)

Seeing Textbook Reading in a New Light
Students often come into college with negative associations surrounding textbook reading. It can be dry, dense, and draining; and in high school, sometimes we're left to our textbooks as a last resort for learning material.

A supportive resource: In college, textbooks can be a fantastic supportive resource. Some of your faculty may have authored their own for the specific course you're in!

Textbooks can provide:

  • A fresh voice through which to absorb material. Especially when it comes to challenging concepts, this can be a great asset in your quest for that "a-ha" moment.

  • The chance to “preview” lecture material, priming your mind for the big ideas you'll be exposed to in class.

  • The chance to review material, making sense of the finer points after class.

  • A resource that is accessible any time, whether it's while you are studying for an exam, writing a paper, or completing a homework assignment. 

Textbook reading is similar to and different from other kinds of reading. Some things to keep in mind as you experiment with its use:

Is it best to read the textbook before class or after?

The answer is "both" and "it depends." In general, reading or at least previewing the assigned textbook material before lecture will help you pay attention in class and pull out the more important information from lecture – that, in turn, tends to make note-taking easier. If you read the textbook before class, then a quick review after lecture is useful for solidfying the information in memory, filling in details that you missed, and addressing gaps in your understanding. In addition, reading before and/or after class also depends on the material, your experience level with it, and the style of the text. It's a good idea to experiment with when works best for you! 

Active reading is everything!

 Just like your other reading, it is still important to read with a goal. Focus your reading goals on the particular section of the textbook that you are reading: Why is it important to the course I'm taking? What are the big takeaways? Also take note of any questions you may have that are still unresolved.

Apply the SQ3R method.

Reading linearly (left to right and top to bottom) does not always make the most sense. Try to gain a sense of the big ideas within the reading: Survey for structure, ask Questions, and then Read – go back to flesh out the finer points within the most important and detail-rich sections.

Don’t forget to recite and review.

Summarizing pushes you to identify the main points of the reading and articulate them succinctly in your own words, making it more likely that you will be able to retrieve this information later. To further strengthen your retrieval abilities, quiz yourself when you are done reading and summarizing.  In other words, practice the retrieval process! Quizzing yourself allows what you've read to enter your memory with more lasting potential, so you'll be able to recall the information for exams or papers.

If you find yourself struggling through the readings for a course, you can ask the course instructor for guidance. Some ways to ask for help are: "How would you recommend I go about approaching the reading for this course?" or "Is there a way for me to check whether I am getting what I should be out of the readings?" 

Marking Text

Marking text – making marginal notes – helps with reading comprehension by keeping you focused and facilitating connections across readings. It also helps you find important information when reviewing for an exam or preparing to write an essay. The next time you’re reading, write notes in the margins as you go or, if you prefer, make notes on a separate sheet of paper. 

Your marginal notes will vary depending on the type of reading. Some possible areas of focus:

  • What themes do you see in the reading that relate to class discussions?

  • What themes do you see in the reading that you have seen in other readings?

  • What questions does the reading raise in your mind?

  • What does the reading make you want to research more?

  • Where do you see contradictions within the reading or in relation to other readings for the course?

  • Can you connect themes or events to your own experiences?

Your notes don’t have to be long. You can just write two or three words to jog your memory. For example, if you notice that a book has a theme relating to friendship, you can just write, “pp. 52-53 Theme: Friendship.” If you need to remind yourself of the details later in the semester, you can re-read that part of the text more closely. 

Accordion style

If you are looking for help with developing best practices and using strategies for some of the tips discussed above, come to an ARC workshop on reading!

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