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Reading and note taking

Reading and note-taking strategies are essential academic skills for studying at university. Adopting the strategies below will help you to read and take notes efficiently and effectively.

Reading

How much to read

Unit of study readings

Most units of study have a list of readings you’re expected to go through each week. These may be divided into required readings, which are compulsory, and recommended readings, which are not compulsory but will give you a deeper understanding of the topic.

You’ll get the most out of your unit if you keep up to date with your readings.

Reading for an assignment

Some lecturers may tell you how many readings they expect you to use for an assignment. In other cases, you will need to use your judgement. To help you decide, consider:

  • the type of assignment (for example, a literature review will likely need more readings than a reflection)
  • the amount of time available
  • the number of words you have to write
  • your year level, and if you are an undergraduate or postgraduate student
  • your discipline (such as humanities or science)
  • the number of marks allocated.

You should always read enough to fully answer the assignment question. As a rule, it’s better to read too much than too little.

If you’re not sure where to start, look at your unit outline to see what required or recommended readings might be relevant, and if there is a list of additional readings at the back. You should also look at the citations in texts you’re reading to see which sources are referenced by experts in the field. Online articles often have links to related articles or to those which have cited the one you are looking at. This may help you to find the most recent articles on your topic.

Reading strategies

Reading efficiently will allow you to quickly understand the main ideas of a text or find specific information.

Before you look at a text, think about why you are reading it. Are you trying to get an overview of the text or are you looking for something in particular? What sorts of things are you looking for – issues, arguments or theoretical perspectives?

As you read, make a list of the aspects of the topic you are going to write about. The more you read, the more detail and references you can add for each aspect of the topic. This will allow you to see where some parts of the topic already have enough detail and references, and identify any gaps or weaknesses which need more reading.

There are three types of reading strategies you can use: skimming, scanning and detailed reading.

Skimming

Skimming is running your eyes over the entire text quickly without reading it in detail.

Ask questions such as:

  • how long is this text?
  • what’s the layout like? Are there diagrams, pictures and text boxes that can guide me to the information I'm looking for?
  • are there headings or other ways of organising this text?
  • is there an abstract or conclusion that will tell me the main point?

Scanning

To scan a text, look at headings, subheadings and keywords. You can get an overview of the purpose and content by reading:

  • the abstract or summary
  • all the headings and subheadings
  • the introduction and conclusion.

Knowing this structure makes it easier and faster to understand the body of the text and predict which sections contain the information you need.

Reading paragraph openings (topic sentences) can also help you understand the outline of the argument and the most relevant paragraphs in a very short time.

Many articles also have keywords listed somewhere near the beginning, which tell you the main ideas in the text. With books, look up keywords in the index.

Ask questions such as:

  • which parts are most relevant to my purpose?
  • which parts are worth reading in detail and which should I scan or skip over?
  • which parts should I prioritise with my limited time?

Detailed reading

Once you’ve evaluated the text through skimming and scanning, you may then return for detailed reading. This involves reading each word in a section and often making notes.

Analytical and critical reading

Broadly speaking, analytical thinking means breaking something into its different parts, seeing similarities and differences between facts and ideas, looking for patterns and trends, and/or identifying real examples of an abstract principle.

When analysis is applied to reading, you need to think about questions like how the reading is related to what you’ve read before, how the main ideas in the article can be broken into parts and what some real-life examples could be.

Critical reading requires you to be an active reader, continually evaluating what you read. You need to think about and respond to what the writer is arguing. Look for omissions, assumptions and evidence. Imagine you are asking the author ‘how do you know?’

At first you may have to rely largely on other experts in the field to see what critiques have been made. As you become more knowledgeable you can increasingly rely on your own ideas.

Think about:

  • the author’s purpose, motivation, attitude, background or methodology
  • the context, structure, language, relevance or how recently the text was published
  • the arguments and whether they are fair, logical or biased
  • the significance of the data
  • the evidence used and how reliable it is.

At a sentence level, you should pay particular attention to words and phrases that link ideas or mark transitions. This may include terms like 'however', 'in addition', 'because', 'if', and 'on the other hand'. These tell you how the writer sees the relationship between ideas. You should also look for expressions that reveal the writer’s attitude, such as 'clearly' and 'unfortunately'.

Resources

This material was developed by the Learning Centre, who offer workshops, face-to-face consultations and resources to support your learning. Find out more about how they can help you develop your communication, research and study skills.

Learning Centre (Camperdown Campus)

Address
  • Room 722, Level 7, Education Building, Camperdown Campus
Opening hours
9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Learning Centre (Cumberland Campus)

Address
  • Ground Floor, Building A, Cumberland Campus, Lidcombe
Opening hours
By appointment
Last updated: 03 October 2019

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