Emily Tsui Global Horizons

Essentials 101 Series: How to Read Effectively for University

As an undergraduate, one of your primary tasks will be to read and assimilate large amounts of information, usually very quickly and frequently through course readings. Especially in Arts programs, course readings will be the cornerstone of your educational experience, with lectures usually being used to reiterate or build upon what was in your readings. As such, in order to be a successful undergraduate student, there is nothing more important than being able to read effectively. Professors may assign over hundred pages a week of course readings, and most students either skim though them or don’t do them at all. Staying up to date with your readings and reading them effectively will have a huge number of benefits, including better understanding of what is being lectured in class, being better prepared for evaluations, and ultimately receiving better grades.

Yet simply doing the readings does not necessarily correspond with higher grades. There are two ways to read something; passively and actively. To read something passively is to read without retaining or studying much of the information. It can usually be done faster then active reading, but the reader’s brain will remember few details of what was on the page. In order to gain the information really needed in a university course reading, multiple readings would be required. To read actively on the other hand, is to engage with the text. You’re focussed enough on what you’re reading to enough question what its telling you. Through this process, you retain all of the important information without having to reread it.

So, active reading is a crucial skill, and with practice throughout your high school career it will lead to success in university. Here are some tips on active reading.

Rule #1: Get comfortable. This is your most important tip. Focus is key to active reading, and cannot be sustained when they are other things on your mind. Create an environment for yourself which is conducive to reading, such as finding a favourite chair you like, setting up the light sources in your room, and having a cup of tea nearby. Eliminate potential distractions through removing outside communication.

Rule #2: Take a look at supplementary documents to the reading for a greater understanding. Did your teacher provide you with any questions to consider or answer for the reading? If so, consider those questions when you’re reading. If not, identify the theme of the course you are studying and see how it relates to the reading.                                             Ask: What kind of context is being set from what you have learned in class? How do the assigned readings relate to each other? Why was this reading assigned?

Rule #3: Know the author. Perhaps the most important thing to reading is to understand the author’s bias, especially with history and political science readings. This allows you to better visualize the direction in which the authors want to head, and consider what they are emphasizing or avoiding mentioning. Authors are often very interesting people as well, and knowing a bit about who wrote what you’re reading can help energize you for the text.                                       Ask: Where did they receive their education? Are they affiliated with a political, religious, or cultural group?

Rule #4: Question the assumptions. One of the best ways to analyze and challenge an author’s arguments is to deconstruct the assumptions that they made.                                                                                                                                 Ask: Why did they make this assumption? How reasonable is applying this assumption to the real world? What references do they make to support their assumptions?

Rule #5: Google what you’re unsure about. While you don’t want to break up your reading too much with interruptions, it is a waste of time to read through something you know you don’t understand. This can be a word used by the author, some facts or theories mentioned, or a scenario you’re unfamiliar with that needs some visualization.     Ask: Can I explain what I’ve just Googled to the rest of the class? What did the reading not explain that I should know?

Rule #6: Summarize what you read. The best way for information to be effectively retained is to read it once actively, set it aside for a bit, and then internally formulate or write up a summary of what you just read. This way, your brain has been exposed to the information twice, and it will take less work to memorize facts for the final exam.                     Ask: Will I be able to explain this reading to my parents and siblings when they ask me what I just read? What major concepts emerged from the reading?

Rule #7: Set aside time for outside reading to read what you enjoy, or else you’ll come to associate reading with just school work. In high school, readings are often very limited in their ability to strike you as interesting and challenge you. Alongside reading fiction, reading the news from a credible source every day is a great way to improve your reading and writing, and provide interesting conversation at the dinner table. (See here.)

Rule #8: Enjoy reading! Look at every reading as an opportunity for you to learn more. It’s tough to actively read on topics that you don’t necessary enjoy, but it will all contribute to your success in high school. Despite some teachers appearing to be as being cruel by assigning you a more than reasonable amount of reading at any given time, know that they are all doing that in your best interest. There’s also this somewhat unscientific infographic that shows how reading frequently is one of the main habits of smart people.

Active reading is very difficult to master, but with an abundance of practice and focus, this will be the most valuable skill that you can have to prepare you for university.

Emily Tsui
Emily Tsui is a second year student at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, pursuing a specialist in International Relations and a minor in Business German. Her research interests include energy security and development, Arctic security, environmental sustainability in developing countries and Canadian defense policy. She is a current Joint Research Fellow and Research Analyst with the Atlantic Council of Canada.