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Reading strategies 

Do not read all texts from start to finish - focus on what you need to get out of each text 

   

As a student, you are required to read large volumes of text for your classes, presentations and written assignments. It takes time and energy to work your way through an extensive syllabus, and sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to read all the material. And you don’t necessarily have to. 

Rather than reading all texts linearly from the first letter to the last full stop, think of reading as a three-stage process with activities before, during and after reading. This will help you optimize your time and increase your understanding. 

The purpose of your reading 

As a student, you often have to read large volumes of text and deal with an extensive syllabus. Consequently, it may be necessary to prioritise your reading according to its purpose. Some texts have to be read very carefully to give you in-depth understanding of their content, while others can be read more superficially to provide an overview of a large subject area or the relationship between different areas. If you think about the purpose of your reading before you start reading a specific text, you will get much more out of it. 


Before reading

Think of your reading as a process in which you need to get the most out of the text. Therefore, plan your reading, find the purpose of your reading and of the text, and consider what type of text you are dealing with. Then you can decide how to read the text. 

Plan your reading

Allocate time for reading 

Planning your reading is partly a matter of allocating time, for example in a weekly timetable. Allocate 3–6-hour slots at times during the week when you feel energised and are able to read well. The exercise Write about your reading habits (pdf) will help you find out where and when you can read most effectively. 

   

Use time intervals 

In order to use the time you allocate for reading effectively, you could also try the Pomodoro technique, whereby you read in intervals. 

Make a plan 

The next step is to develop a more specific plan for how to get through a text. Based on the text type and the purpose of reading the text, plan how to read the text, how to help yourself understand the text while reading it, and how to process the text afterwards. This page has suggestions for how to do this. 

Be inspired by others 

Share your tips on good reading habits with your fellow students. Maybe you can draw inspiration from their reading habits as well, and adapt them to your own preferences. The video below (in Danish) has inspiration from teachers and other students on how to go about your reading and how best to prepare for class.  

Find the purpose of the text

Find the purpose of the text 

Before you start reading, you need to get an overview of the text and try to find out why you have to read it, and what you should understand after reading the text. Perhaps your teacher has given you a hint by asking questions about the text or providing guidelines for your reading. If your teacher has not asked any questions about the text, you can ask your own questions and find answers when reading the text. 

Examples of purposes include: 

  • To gain an overview – e.g. of a topic, or a historical or theoretical overview 

  • To understand and learn – e.g. a concept, a theory or a method 

  • To take a critical approach – e.g. to a concept, a theory or a method 

  • To study examples – e.g. of a method or an analysis 

  • To use as an artefact – e.g. to analyse 

To gain an overview of the text, start by identifying the text type. For example, is it a scientific article, a review article, a textbook or something else? Read more about different text types

   

Get an overview of the text you are going to read 

A general overview of the text will guide you through its key aspects and thereby on the purpose of reading it. The handout below presents specific methods for gaining an overview of a new text. 

Different text types

Texts serving different purposes 

Texts are very different: they serve different purposes, address different target groups and take different forms. For example, some texts are supposed to give you an understanding of a theory or a concept; others serve to provide a historical overview; and yet others serve as examples of a scientific method. 

The table below shows the difference between selected text types. As a university student, you are likely to meet all these different text types - and more. The text type is an indicator of what you will be using the text for, so it is useful to consider the type of text in front of you before you start reading. 

MASS MEDIA 

TRADE JOURNALS 

TEXT BOOKS 

RESEARCH 

EMPIRICAL/THEORY DEVELOPMENT 

Informal information 

Academic knowledge 

Academic knowledge 

(New) academic knowledge 

For entertainment purposes 

For practice-related purposes 

For educational purposes 

For discussion purposes 

For laypersons 

For practitioners 

For students 

For researchers 

Characteristics: 

  • No technical terms 

  • No references 

  • Focus on everyday life 

Characteristics: 

  • Few technical terms 

  • Possibly a few references 

  • Focus on how you do things 

Characteristics: 

  • Technical terms are explained 

  • Few references 

  • Focus on what you know 

Characteristics: 

  • Many technical terms 

  • Many references (dialogue with researchers) 

  • Focus on how you know 

   

Get more familiar with various text types 

Get more familiar with the various text types by doing the exercise below with your study group. You may want to use the handout outlining the different academic text genres. 


While reading

Once you have determined which text type you have in front of you and what it can be used for, you will be able to decide how to read the text. Then you can start the actual reading. 

Reading techniques

Select a reading technique 

Depending on your purpose, you can read a text in different ways or combine several methods to get the most out of your reading. 

READING TECHNIQUE 

PURPOSE AND METHODOLOGY 

Reading to get an overview 

A prerequisite for subsequent reading. You read to get a first impression of the text. You look through the text. You read only the title, chapter and section headings, abstract, table of contents, conclusion, tables, figures, examples and fact boxes to find out about the structure, difficulty and usefulness of the text. 

Skimming 

A “superficial” and unfocused reading method. You read to acquaint yourself with the content (volume, type and level) and the form (presentation and language). You read quickly and superficially. You want to gain an overview of the content and the main topics of the text or identify passages that you want to read more carefully. 

Normal reading 

A way to become more familiar with the material. You read to gain an understanding of the content and meaning of the text. You read the whole text in order to grasp: the key message, the full perspective, the line of thought, the unifying theme, the argumentation, the structure, the main issue and the results. 

Thorough, intensive reading 

You read to learn in detail. You read “word for word” in order to master the content, retrieve specific information, memorize, and reproduce nuances. 

Reading to retrieve information 

Reading focused on specific information. You use the reference work taxonomy to retrieve specific pieces of information as needed. 

Selective reading 

Controlled reading. You read to find particular information. You read specific parts of the text or you read the text through a lens that serves your particular purpose, for example a specific assignment. 

Download the list of the different reading methods below. 

Understand the text

At university, you will often come across complex texts, theories and reports, and these may be challenging to read and understand. To advance your understanding of what you are reading – or to understand what it is you don’t quite understand – it is a good idea to engage in active reading. This means that you carry out other activities while reading. 

METHODS OF ACTIVE READING 

Work your way through examples in the text 

The examples included in the material hold great potential for enhancing your understanding, and if you understand the examples, you will learn the material in the right way. If you find it difficult to understand and work through the examples, ask yourself what you need to re-read in order to move on. 

Read with a pencil in your hand 

Take notes while reading. Write down questions, thoughts and wordings along the way. You may want to draw figures and models to support your understanding and memory of the content.  

  • There is inspiration for various note-taking techniques here.  

Focus on illustrations and figures 

If the syllabus you are reading includes illustrations, figures, diagrams and tables, it is important to read and understand these. Supplementary visual material can be just as important as the text itself and often holds a lot of valuable information in very little space. So take time to fully understand visual materials.  

Make your own lists of concepts and symbols 

If you are uncertain about the meaning of words, concepts or symbols, look them up. Select the most important ones and make a list of definitions and explanations. This will be useful later on when writing assignments or revising for the exam. 

Describe the problem 

If there is something you don't understand, try to describe it as accurately as possible. Write down your questions and take them to your study group, student instructor or teacher. 

Active reading of the syllabus will enhance the outcome of your work and strengthen your academic understanding and learning. How you choose to be active while reading is linked to your cognitive strategies, i.e. how you learn (read more about learning). 

Reading for presentations and assignments

Acquaint yourself with a specific topic 

Approaching a specific topic, for example when writing a major assignment or giving a presentation, can be challenging. Consequently, it is a good idea to acquire an overview of the topic before delving into specifics. 

   

Methods for subject-specific reading 

Below is a list of tips on how to approach a topic that you are going to present orally or in writing. 

Approach a new topic: start reading broadly, and then narrow down 

If you are embarking on a new topic or academic field, read general reference works first, rather than starting with the most difficult theory book. Then read a general textbook or a general introduction to the topic, and after that you can read theory books, anthologies and general professional journals on the topic. Finish by reading the most recent scientific articles on the topic. 

Grasp the key aspects: read from the outside and towards the middle 

Most of the essential and important information is at the beginning and the end of a text. Consequently, a good way to read articles, books, chapters and sections is from the outside and towards the middle. In other words, rather than reading the entire book, chapter or the section linearly, read it from both ends. 

Select a focus for your reading 

The way you choose to approach the text provides a basis for different understandings. If you try to focus on too many aspects at once, there is a risk that the outcome of your reading will become unclear, unfocused and imprecise. Therefore, it is better to read the text several times and take focused notes. 

For example, your focus could be:  

  • Read the text historically. 

  • Read the text to understand details and nuances (e.g. a theory or a method). 

  • Read the text critically. 

  • Read the text rhetorically, focusing on its structure, style, purpose, focus and argumentation. 

  • Read the text within its research context. Who does this text refer to, and who refers to it? Where is it located in the academic landscape? 

  • Read the text literarily. 

  • Read the text into your own context - for your use, purpose, own ideas. 

It may also be useful for you to consider how best to acquire new knowledge by using different cognitive strategies. Read more about learning how to learn. 

Reading in computationally intensive courses

Work your way actively through the text 

Read text books for computationally intensive courses by working your way through them step by step. This requires a high degree of focus, an appropriate reading method, and sufficient time for the reading. It is not unusual to take 30-60 minutes to read and understand a single page on courses within the fields of mathematics, physics and biology, for example. 

   

Read in order to understand 

In computationally intensive courses, the purpose of your reading is usually to solve a problem or make calculations. Instead of starting on the assignments right away, you need to read or re-read the text to understand the basic principles. This is the knowledge you need to take with you as you continue on your degree programme, and that will form the basis of future teaching. 


After reading

It is tempting to put the text away the minute you have finished reading it. But holding on to it a little longer to process what you have read will enhance your understanding and improve your memory. 

Remember the text

After you finish reading, it is time to process the notes or questions you have written down while reading. Find a method that works for you. The most important point is that you write about the text in order to understand it better and to remember it better. Read more about note-taking techniques.​​ 

Write down the most important points 

Describe in your own words the three or five key points in the text. You may add a sentence about the argument of the text for each of the key points. 

Write a summary 

In your own words, write approx. 10 lines that sum up the text. Later on, you can use the summary to assess whether to re-read the text, e.g. when writing an assignment or studying for the exam. Consequently, it may be a good idea to add text references (e.g. page numbers), so you can easily go back to any specific place in the text. 

Create a mind map 

To illustrate the links between theories/concepts or texts studied on the course, you can create a mind map to clarify the links. You can then expand this mind map every time you read a new text. 

Make a list of key concepts 

Using your own words, explain the concepts included in your list. This is particularly relevant for theory- and concept-intensive courses. You can make a list of concepts that goes across courses taken during your degree programme, thus building your own mini-reference work. 

Discuss the text in your study group 

When you are trying to understand or remember a text, talking about it has the same effect as writing. In your group, try to explain new concepts to each other, or agree that each of you write down questions about what you didn’t understand when you read the text, and then try to answer the questions together in your group - or talk about them with your teacher. Read more about group work

Explain the text to someone with no knowledge of the subject 

When you have to explain a text to someone who doesn't know anything about the subject, for example another student, your roomie, your mother or your dog, you have to avoid difficult technical terms. This will make you process the text and understand it better. Consider making an audio or video recording of your explanation so you can watch it or listen to it at a later point, for example when preparing for the exam. For example, use the Feynman method illustrated below.