Step #1: Finding the Right Setting for Reading----
Where am I going to read?
Recent research demonstrates that varying your studying and reading locations can improve learning outcomes (Carey). Fortunately, there are many great places around campus to work and keep things fresh: Launders, the third floor of the Student Center, the lawn behind Whitman (though perhaps not in January), ODY Library... Go ahead and try out different spaces and find what works for you. Do be careful about studying in your residence hall; for many people it can be an environment rife with distractions and opportunities to procrastinate.
What is my purpose for reading?
In most of your classes you'll be required to do a close reading of texts that will require more time and attention than you needed in high school. That said, there are situations that call for a faster read. These situations might include times when a professor explicitly says that you can give a piece a 'quick read' or at the beginning of a research project, when you might look over a scholarly article's abstract to gauge its fit within your project. In some natural science classes, your instructors may encourage you to give a text a second read after class with your notebook in hand to bring together points from a lecture. Make sure you understand your purpose for reading before you dig into a text.
Special Note: If your professor notes that you should give a piece a faster read, focus your attention on abstracts, introductions, conclusions, topic sentences, quotations, graphics, and other note-worthy features in the text while allowing your eye to move more quickly across the page.
What kind of reading environment am I looking for?
This varies by reader, of course. Some people need absolute silence; others like some background noise, like they might find in a cafe or coffee shop. Too many disruptions can derail any reader, though, and that's especially true of electronic distractions. Unless the reading is on-line, why not turn off your computer and cell phone? Even if it is electronic, turn off potential procrastination suspects like Facebook. Many students are able to ward off such distractions by working steadily for 45-50 minutes of each hour, and then taking a periodic break to stretch, check email, get a drink, or relax.
When is the best time of day for me to read?
This will also vary person-to-person, though it might be worthwhile to think about what times of day you feel most comfortable studying and what times might be better set aside for other activities. We do strongly recommend avoiding all-nighters, though it is interesting to note recent research that shows that studying difficult subjects before going to sleep can help a student improve her learning outcomes (Shellenbarger). For longer reading assignments, you might find that you do better work when you divide the readings into smaller pieces, perhaps covering 45 minutes of a challenging novel each day instead of trying to do four hours all at once. Many classes require the readings to be completed in order of assignment, prior to class, so make sure to keep up.
What tools will I need?
First of all, you'll want a pen or pencil, so that you can underline important passages, write notes in the margins, circle new words to look up later, and jot down questions as they arise. Second, you'll want your course notebook, which can be used both as a class reference and as a forum to jot down summaries and ideas, and access to a good dictionary. Third, for those readers who are concerned about moving along at a steady pace and/or keeping their eyes where they should be on the page, you may wish to use a note card or pointer to keep your place.
How should I "warm up" for the reading?
First, review your course notes before you open the book. This gets you in the healthy habit of a daily note review and reminds you of themes and concepts that have been arising in class that might be helpful in understanding the text. Second, you'll want to carefully preview the reading. Examine the cover, table of contents, charts, diagrams, maps, and jacket summaries. Go ahead and read the first sentence of each paragraph and think about where you expect the reading will go. It helps to read introductions, abstracts, synopses, and conclusions in advance, too. Third, think about questions you hope to answer from the reading and don't forget to pay attention to the sources the author is referencing. You'll also want to identify whether there is background information you should cover first. For example, if you are reading a piece on housing discrimination in the late 20th century, you may need to do some initial research on the legacy of redlining. Finally, composition scholar Peter Elbow suggests that we do a little free writing before we dig into a text, as we think about what information we hope to gather from the reading and what puzzles we hope to address (296).
Why should I be invested in reading?
Author Ann Patchett says it best: "let me underscore the obvious here: Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps." The same can be said about other genres, of course, and good reading habits are often the key to long-term academic success, exploration, and fulfillment.
Step #2: Tips for While You Are Reading---
Make predictions about where you believe the text will take you. This is one of the simplest ways to improve your metacognition (Abu Shahib), or in other words, maximizing awareness of your thinking process as you read and being cognizant of your interaction with the text. It may also be helpful to generate mental images as you read, paraphrase important passages, and place items or ideas into categories.
Take time to identify major themes or ideas that the author addresses and list these themes in your notes and in the margins of the text. Ask questions of the text and of yourself, too. Go ahead and mark up your readings like crazy!
It may be helpful to develop a system of symbols to represent ideas that frequently come up in course readings. To see an example of how you might go about doing this, we invite you to take a look at the symbolic system that Mark Busser of McMaster University has developed to help students navigate and retain information from political science texts. Please see the link below.
- Circle new words and ideas and look them up when you complete the section. You don't want to look them up immediately because you'll interrupt your flow and reduce your level of fluency. If the text contains frequent unfamiliar terms and concepts, you may need to read it twice. As you gather up new terms, it's a good idea to compile a glossary of course-related vocabulary.
- For difficult or particularly important parts of the text, read them out loud. One important piece of the Orton-Gillingham Academy's successful philosophy on language development is that multisensory approaches are a key to better learning outcomes. Reading aloud is one of the easiest ways to achieve this goal.
- Think of graphical organizers (e.g., timelines, graphs, charts, Venn diagrams, etc.) that can represent the ideas presented in the text and help you with studying come exam time.
- Familiarize yourself with Latin and Greek roots and discipline-specific terminology, as they will help you build your working vocabulary and ultimately your comprehension levels.
One might also follow some of the strategies outlined by Dr. Ibrahim Abu Shihab in his article "Reading as Critical Thinking". Some of his ideas include:
1. Engage in "such cognitive strategies (as) note taking, summarizing, paraphrasing, predicting, analyzing, and using context clues."
2. Use "memory cognitive strategies" like "creating mental images, chunking, semantic mapping, and word associations", along with the use of "inference, guessing the meaning of unfamiliar words from context and their linguistic and semantic clues, and skillful use of monolingual dictionaries"
3. Use "metacognitive strategies... including adjusting reading speed and selecting strategies for different purposes, using prior knowledge, inferring text, marking text, focusing on typographical features, and summarizing." (211)
Step #3: How Can I Apply Class Readings?---
Being conversant in the day's texts is a key to good class participation, which is a major expectation for most classes at St. Lawrence. To prepare to be an active participant, we recommend trying out the following steps:
1) Try explaining the ideas in the text to someone else before class. Discuss its main points and overall argument.
2) Come up with a list of questions or points to discuss in the class. Questions can be analytical or critical in nature, may reflect a desire to know more about an idea described in the text, or may simply seek to clear up some point of confusion. In any case, you are demonstrating engagement with the text to the professor. Make sure your questions engage directly in the text and be ready to refer professors and classmates to specific pages and passages.\
3) Compare this work to others like it. Perhaps you can chart the similarities and differences to previous assignments or analyze how the text builds off of previous scholarship in its field.
4) Go back and re-read passages that you found were particularly interesting, important, or difficult. Pay particular attention to summaries and abstracts. Also, it may be worthwhile to review introductions, conclusions, and moments of crisis, conflict resolution, or major turning points for characters in the text.
5) Find ways to test yourself on the materials you've covered.
6) In their study “Writing to Read,” Steve Graham and Michael Hebert showed that students who complete a brief personal response to a text or a short written analysis or interpretation of a reading are far more likely to retain what they covered (14).
7) Refer to the professor, course mentor/TA, Academic Advising Office, and/or peer tutoring program if you continue to have trouble comprehending the course readings. Also, the Office of Accommodative Services has specific reading-assistance programs to help students with learning differences.
Works Cited: 1) Abu Shihab, Ibrahim. "Reading as Critical Thinking". Asian Social Science 7.8 (August 2011): 209-218.
2) Carey, Benedict. "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits". nytimes.com. New York Times, 7 Sept. 2010. Web.
3) Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
4) Graham, Steve and Michael Hebert. “Writing to Read”. A Report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Alliance for Excellent Education: 2001. Web. 17 Aug. 2012
5) Mack, Dinah and Holly Epstein Ojalvo. "Briefly Noted: Practicing Useful Annotation Strategies." nytimes.com. The Learning Network Blog of the New York Times, 7 Mar. 2011. Web.
6) Patchett, Ann. "And the Winner Isn't...". New York Times, April 18, 2012, A27.
7) Shellenbarger, Sue. "Toughest Exam Question: What Is the Best Way to Study?". wsj.com.