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Basic Strategies for Active Reading

What Is Reading?

“Reading” is a fixture of students’ workloads across all academic disciplines, yet this general term does not accurately convey the variety of mental tasks to which it refers. Reading a scholarly essay is very different from using a textbook; digesting a newspaper article is a world away from understanding a novel (or play, or epic poem). Each written medium demands that the student think in a particular way. Here we will lay out a foundation to help you approach these different reading tasks.

Get Ready to Read: Steps to Take Before You Begin

To print or not to print? Scientific American has a great (and very accessible) piece summarizing the literature on reading on screens versus hard copy. The basic conclusion is that reading printed material is more conducive to long-term understanding. That said, we must at least acknowledge some of the advantages to reading on screen, for example the lower cost, reduced environmental impact, and convenience. Furthermore, there are many software applications that can make reading on screens more conducive to long-term understanding (programs that facilitate digital annotation, for example).

You will have to best results if you remove distractions from your environment. Be aware of the impacts that noise, lighting, comfort, and your body position have on your attention and energy levels. At the most basic level, you should strive for a reading setting that allows you to achieve the following:

(1) Stay awake! This means get enough sleep at the outset, work in a relatively upright position (not in your bed!), be mindful of your personal circadian rhythm, and learn your own "prime hours" for focus.

(2) Avoid interruptions at all costs. When it comes to reading, a sort of “flow” is absolutely necessary for understanding and retaining the information on the page. Interruptions such as cell phone notifications (turn it off, or leave it behind!), email or Facebook updates on your computer (again, turn it off or stay off those sites when trying to focus), friends entering the room, and so on will greatly hamper both your efficiency and your results. You might be in denial about this right now ("What if my friends need to reach me!"), but once you experience a successful, uninterrupted reading “flow” you will never look back.

The Point of Reading

Why are you reading at all? To learn, of course! This truth will guide all our approaches to reading tasks. First we will do a simple exercise that turns our goal of learning into a framework for all academic reading.

Reading to Learn Exercise

James H. and Christine Turk Berick Center for Student Advising


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