With the start of a new term rapidly approaching, our guest blog this month is written by Cath Senker, a professional author and Academic Skills consultant at University of Sussex. Cath explores active approaches to effective reading.
Tackling academic journal articles for the first time can be hard. You sit down in front of the dense text and start reading. After a couple of pages, your eyes glaze over and you realise that you haven’t taken in anything at all. You start again, but it’s no better the second time.
This is not surprising. Research has shown that reading a paper slowly all the way through is inefficient (Trevor Day, 2017). Luckily, there’s a better way – it’s more engaging and will help you to focus on the most relevant parts.
What’s your purpose?
First, consider how you’re going to use the paper. Are you a first-year undergraduate who will use it as one of many sources for an assignment? Are you a final-year student looking for key methods, theories or arguments to draw on for your dissertation? The purpose of reading the source will affect how much time and attention you give to it.
Get the gist
Whatever your purpose, start by gaining an overview. Read the abstract. It summarises the article, so you can quickly see if it’s useful. If it is, check the introduction, which will introduce you to the contents and the author’s research or argument. Now look at the conclusion. Beginnings and ends are usually the most useful parts! Move on to scan the first and last paragraph of each section. This will help you work out which are the most relevant sections.
What’s the point?
Next, try to follow the author’s line of reasoning. A good way is to browse through the topic sentences. (The topic sentence is generally the first sentence of every paragraph, where the author makes their point.) Reading the topic sentences allows you to see the flow of the argument through the article. You may also find it helpful to look at the final sentence of each paragraph, where the writer concludes their point.
By this stage, you will have worked out which sections of the article are most important for you. Now you can examine them in depth; you may need to go through these sections several times. First, read to understand what the author is saying and make notes summarising their points. If there are terms you don’t understand, find out what they mean. Read again, and jot down any questions or ideas that occur to you. Once you’ve completed your close reading, it’s time for evaluation. Consider how this article compares with others you have read on the topic. What are its strengths and weaknesses? How can you use it in your assignment?
If you adopt this reading method, you should be able to stay wide awake, quickly discover the most relevant sections, and grasp what the author is saying and how it relates to your assignment.