How to read


Dear Scholars

One of the most important misperceptions about reading in academia is that it is like any other reading, except harder, less fun and therefore it takes longer. No wonder people freak out when they are faced with a graduate student work load of several hundred pages each week.

When faced with this, fear not. There are some great techniques to make your academic reading more efficient.

Lets think about what academic reading is all about. It is about finding out what other scholars have done in a certain area of our interest (or sometimes the interest of our professors who force it on us – oh well). A novel you probably will enjoy reading front to back; with a murder story you usually don’t want to flip to the end finding out who did it. This is not the case in academia. You want to know what was done, how it was done and what you should take away from the scholarship at hand. And there are a few techniques to help you get there and get there more efficiently than “just” reading. More experienced researchers do this intuitively, but there is absolutely no reason why anyone should not just follow the instructions laid out here and act like a more experienced researcher.

When you grab an academic article here’s how you should approach it.

1. Read the title. Very often the title will already tell you that you can stop reading, and if it did not, the next step certainly will. (I guess, if someone assigned the text for you to read, you have no choice but to read it. You still probably want to follow the advice laid out here.) If the title is good, it will effectively communicate what was done in the study. (People like to get cute with their title. It is a bad idea unless you have the luxury of space to get cute – then it is just cute. But more on this in a future blog entry on how to write.)

2. Read the abstract. A good abstract will tell you mostly everything you are interested in. What was done, why, what is the result and what you should take away from this. (Once again, some people don’t like to give away the end of the study, but that is strategically a bad decision.)

3. Look at the tables and figures (if there are any). A good table and/or figure is self-contained and self-explanatory without consulting the text. Sometimes it takes some practice looking at tables and figures and figuring out how to read them, but very quickly it becomes second nature, especially if the figures are good. These excerpts can help get detailed information on what was done, what the author would like to communicate from the study.

4. Read the introduction and the conclusion. In addition to the most important results from tables and figures (especially in empirical studies) why the study was done, why it was interesting to conduct and what you should take away from the results is explained in these two sections.

(Some people prefer to do 4 first and then 3. Figure out what works best for you and use that strategy.)

5. Now, armed with all the most important information, you are ready to just read the whole article. And here’s the trick. It will go much smoother and much faster. You already know what you are reading, why you are reading it, what the findings were. You will not have to stop and think what is going on. You most likely will never have to re-read sections to make sure you are getting it right. In fact, because you got the most important things, now you are just looking for at the details that may be interesting or important. You will be much quicker, your brain can be at ease that you will not miss anything major and therefore you will be at ease reading faster. Cognitively, this faster reading will still allow you to process all the information better than the resource intensive, cognitively more taxing, very careful reading you would do if you were just reading a study front to back.

+1 Take notes as you are reading. Do not highlight. Highlighting is a lazy person’s way of taking notes. But there is a huge problem with it. When you highlight something, you are basically telling your brain, “this is important, so I will have to get back to this”. At the same time you are also telling your brain, “for now, you can ignore this” making your brain less able to process the information you just highlighted. Sure, you could come back and read it again, but how efficient is that? First, you read cognitively ignoring the most important points. And then you have to read again? When you take notes, always rephrase key points in your own words. You make your brain process the information better when you reformulate the points in a way to become more consumable for yourself. It is important that you do not just copy as that is also cognitively lazy (like highlighting). In the end, you have a record of what you found important, memory cues in your words for things your brain already processed so if you want to refresh the material, such notes work very well. But most of the time you will not even need a refresher, unless it is for an exam at a much later date (and such exams are rare in grad school).

I would certainly not propose that you skip any of these steps (including and especially the full read), though in a literature review, earlier points may lead you to conclude the information presented is irrelevant to you. Then it is fine to stop. (Not so much if you are reading because someone above you made you read a piece. Then it is best to really read it, but the techniques laid out here will still help you read the material faster and process it better.)

Final notes: the technique was developed for articles but it works well for books as well. Try it!  To produce this post, I drew heavily from Oxford University Academic good practice – a practical guide (yes, Oxford has this in their “academic guidelines” – but sadly half of that document is about plagiarism…) and conversations with Darren Schreiber.