Closely linked with researching is the core skill of reading: It is through the words of others that we are introduced to new ideas and are able to reflect on them.
Reading at university level involves a number of additional skills which are essential to critical analysis:
- knowledge acquisition,
- comprehension and the ability to interpret a text,
- the acquisition of new vocabulary,
- argument development and validation, and
- information evaluation and synthesis.
When you research a topic for an essay or work on a large project such as a thesis, you need to read and critically evaluate a considerable amount of material.
The following sections discuss three areas which will enable you to undertake your reading more effectively: using reading lists, planning reading time, and adopting reading strategies.
Reading lists are provided to guide you to key literature on particular topics. They usually contain a breadth of material that reflects different approaches and views.
You are usually expected to read approximately three key texts per topic. It is therefore important to find which texts make required readings. It is also important to determine whether or not you need to read an entire text. You can start by reviewing
- the abstracts of journal articles,
- the preface and introduction of books, and
- headings and sub-headings of article sections or book chapters.
This step will help you not only conceptualise the text, but also identify the type and amount of information you need to focus on. (Please see Adopting Effective Reading Strategies below for further information).
Reading requires concentration and time for reflection. As an important step in the learning process, you need to identify:
- how much you need to read,
- the complexity of the text, and
- how you read it.
Understanding these three elements will enable you to map out the amount of reading time you need to include in your study plan.
- the purpose of your reading (whether it is to acquire facts or discuss ideas),
- when you are the most alert (whether in the morning, afternoon, or evening),
- whether you have a quiet space away from distractions, and
- how much time you have allocated to read.
You will often be given a reading guide that is directly relevant to your lecture program. Reading before the lecture/class helps you to better understand the material and participate in discussions.
How you read your material depends on what you are reading and why. Are you trying to gain an overview of a topic, understand the material in depth, or find specific information? Being clear about what you want from a text ensures you read effectively.
Depending on your purpose and the complexity of the material, you can adopt some of the following effective reading strategies:
- Scanning. This is the ability to locate facts quickly and to find answers to specific questions. For example, you scan for information when you try to find a phone number in a directory. Use scanning when you want to locate a specific piece of information in a text.
- Skimming. When you skim, you are reading quickly by skipping details, minor ideas, and examples. Skimming is best used when you are trying to determine if the text is relevant to your study and, if so, which sections you need to read more carefully. While skimming
- carefully read the introduction, conclusion, and abstract (if there is one),
- look at headings and sub-headings,
- look at diagrams, graphs, tables, images, and
- read the first and last sentences of each paragraph and sections which present a summary or conclusion.
- Reading in Depth. When you have identified sections you need to read closely, you need to not only understand the content but also ask questions such as: What aspect of the topic is this writing addressing? Does the writer have a particular point of view? How does the writer build that position?
- Reflecting. Time to reflect on read material is critical especially when you are contrasting the ideas and opinions of others or when you are comparing your own with those of others.
Irrespective of what reading strategy you use, you should take notes of what you have read. Note-taking helps you write an assignment or study for an exam since it avoids you having to re-read the original text to find the relevant information. (Please refer to the Note-Taking section below for further information).