Friday, August 05, 2022

How to read academic books and articles

My SU office

This is off-topic, but honestly something that does come up in conversations especially with new college students (of any age). 

When you were in high school, did your teachers teach you how to read academic materials? Mine didn't and I think it is the same for most students. Yet some guidance on how to read academic materials can make a huge difference. You might use your time better, cover more materials, and understand more about the topic. 

This is a topic where schools and others have produced good information, some of which is below (and you can find others). I encourage you to look at some of those resources and learn the techniques. My summary of the techniques is:

  • Not every work should be read the same way. This is a truth that instinctive we might know, but do not put into practice.
  • Understand why you are reading the work. What's the goal? This can help you determine how to read it.
  • Pre-read the work by reading the title, introduction, headings, table/graphic captions, and conclusion. This can help you understand the arch of the work and determine where to focus your energy in it. Perhaps you need to focus on one section, for example, and not the entire thing.
    • You might also read the first sentence  in every paragraph.
    • Notice any words you don't and find out what they mean.
    • Read. Don't underline.  
    • If it is a book, look at the table of contents and the index. Both will give you a sense of what the entire book contains.
  • Now read the entire work or the sections that contain new content or content that is important to the topic you are studying.
    • Limit how much you underline. We tend to underline too much! Consider underlining only after you have read the work. In other words, go back and understand key words or phrases.
  • Capture key points about the work. This could be notes that you create for each work. Perhaps it is notice written on the work (article) itself. This will help you remember what the work is about, especially if you will need to reference this work later.

This technique takes practice. You will need to be intentional about it, especially at first. However, once you understand it, I think you'll apply it to other words like long (non-academic) journal articles, the law, and other works. 

One final piece of advice. Just because you started reading a work doesn't mean that you need to finish it. True. If it isn't useful, move onto something else and don't feel guilty.

Okay, you've read (or skimmed) this far! What are your tips?


Addendum (08/11/2022): By the way, I wrote on this topic back in 2020. Be sure to read that post, too.

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