Effective reading: Five tips

To do well in university, students need to think about how they might read effectively.  Here are five tips:

1. Find a time and place that suits you. Read when you have time to concentrate in a quiet but well-lit place. Tucked up in bed on a cold Tuesday night might be best. Nursing a hangover on a bus to university probably isn’t. But whatever works for you. Also, when reading, try to find a way to switch off from the world. Concentrating seems harder and harder these days with distractions such as mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter. Reading is most effective when you can concentrate.

2. ‘What’s the question?’ Always try to work out what question is motivating the author. The author will usually state this somewhere in the abstract, the introduction, or the literature review. He or she might say, ‘The literature on young people’s access of Facebook in Ireland has neglected the role of mobile phones. This paper seeks to fill this gap in knowledge.’ Similar sorts of ‘the literature says X, I want to move it forward by doing Y’ statements can be found in what you read. Identifying and then thinking about the question will help you position the reading within the broader literature assigned to you throughout the semester.

3. ‘What’s their answer?’ Some people make their ‘findings’ absolutely crystal clear. Others don’t. It depends in part on writing style, how they like to communicate, what approach they are taking. Nevertheless, you need to work out how they have answered the question. Note here that your ability to do this will improve with time. Part of the skill is knowing what perspective the author is taking, that is, through what sort of lens does the author see the world? At issue are theories, approaches, styles of doing research and writing about the world. You will learn about such theories and approaches as you progress through your degree. As you learn, you’ll begin to see patterns, clues, or particular ways of arguing, or using evidence – all such clues will help you begin to find answers.

4. Take notes. Some people like to scribble on the margins of the paper, others like to use highlighter pens. Others still prefer taking notes on a separate piece of paper. Some people read the whole piece first, then write some notes – maybe the most memorable part, or what they liked/hated/agreed or disagreed with. Try different styles and run with one that suits you. But do find some way to take notes. In doing so, don’t forget to note the background details. Take note on paper or in your memory of the author’s name, the title of the book or the journal in which the reading was published. Digesting these seemingly minor details can help you ‘place’ the reading in your memory bank. Note other details, too, especially the references the author uses e.g. is there a book or journal that the author keeps using? Finally, read footnotes or endnotes, because the author might say something useful there. Don’t just skip them.

5. Observe how the author writes. Learning how to write is so much easier when you learn from good writers. Look at how the author introduces things, how they wrap up. Take note of connecting words or phrases, or how the author moves the reader from start to finish. As you read, think about how you might try to use some of these techniques in your next writing assignment.

There you are. Five simple tips to make your time spent reading more effective. Feel free to make some comments below. What are your top tips?

Alistair Fraser



  1. The Pink Guide to Philosophy (compiled by Professor Helena de Bres) may be helpful in thinking about studying in general. Although this guide is aimed at philosophy students, I think that this resource would be really useful to geography students, as it offers a range of advice. This includes ten tips on studying, “how to read”, “how to write”, “writing do’s and don’ts”, and “how to revise”.

    The website is available here: https://sites.google.com/a/wellesley.edu/pinkguidetophilosophy/


  2. […] no doubt – but how do you find your way through it? Following on from the Alistair Fraser’s previous post on tips for reading, I want to point out some ways that you can start to use and make sense of these other resources. […]


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