Read at university and college

Learn how to read for university and college: Read strategically or actively to save time, learn effectively, and enjoy your study more. Reading actively means you read with purpose and take notes. So, if you only take one thing from this article: read with pen and paper in hand (or the digital equivalent).

Academic journal and notetaking iwht colours
Don’t just read: mark up, annotate, and take notes

See further tips below, but first:

Why does reading actively matter at university?

Because reading is key to higher and further education but many students make it harder than it needs to be. Of course, reading should be challenging, and you should spend a lot of time reading. But it doesn’t have to be painful or overwhelming.

Many students make two crucial mistakes: First, they think reading is reading. But reading at university or college is not reading. It’s doing. And second, they often think they have to read everything, all the way through, from A to Z. That is not the case.

But because students believe this, they often become overwhelmed, they fail to complete the task, they feel guilty, they resent their teaching staff, they read less than they should, and they burn out.

The solution:

  1. glance at everything you can,
  2. make decisions about how deeply to read each text, and
  3. read with purpose and take notes (look for something you want to get from the text and document it).

So, with one text you might spend five minutes, another you might spend an hour or two understanding in detail. Occasionally you might do deep reading for weeks. Learn the skill of deciding and managing your own approach — this is a key skill they don’t teach you in school, college, or university.

Important side note: paper vs. screen: Does it matter if you read on a device vs. read on paper?

paper versus screen

Yes it might. An article by Maryanne Wolf points to studies of cognition that show that we read differently on different media…and that this affects our learning. There is some indication when we read on paper we absorb more, feel better, and are more creative and critical. So consider reading different things in different ways. Maybe you can do some deep / close reading using books and printed articles.

Each student will figure out their own way, but here is one simple system that can help you get started reading strategically…

The STARR method of strategic reading

STARR is a really simple 5-step technique, and yet most people are never taught to do this. (Note: STARR is my name for it. Other people call it SQ3R.) Learning STARR can really help you feel more focused, motivated, and comfortable when approaching academic reading.

Here are the five steps:

  1. Scan
  2. Take notes
  3. Assess
  4. Read
  5. Review

1. Scan: When you read, take just a few minutes to scan the text. The aim here is to simply get an overview of the structure, length, purpose, and main point. Start with the abstract if there is one. Then “flip” or scroll to other main sections, taking a minute or so with conclusions or recommendations for example. Look for the stated purpose of the writing and any major arguments, opinions, perspectives.

journal article with blue line showing how we scan actively from one place to another
Scan the text; jump and notice the length, structure, and basic ideas

At this point you may decide the text is not useful at all. In that case, move on to something else. But if you decide it could be useful, do the next step…

2. Take notes: As you scan, assuming the text has some value, begin your notes. Use one of the tools or templates discussed in the note-making section of this site. To start, just capture the author, date, main purpose, and main conclusion. Get into more detail when the text demands it (when you have to learn the material for core knowledge or to accomplish something).

making notes is a way of reading actively
Take notes as you read (doesn’t have to be this format)

3. Assess (30 seconds): Before you get too deep, decide if the text is one you wish to spend more time with today. If not, you can put it aside and move on. If yes, note how much time you want to spend reading, what you aim to learn from the text, and what you might use it for. This brief reflection and decision will help you focus, remember more, and take better notes. You could try setting a timer for the time you decided to spend on the text.

4. Read: At this point you’re ready to read more deeply. Start at the abstract or introduction and move through the different parts of the text. You can still jump around or skip parts if you wish, but be aware of why you are doing so. In deep reading you may wish to look up difficult words and build your vocabulary. Continue to take notes and paraphrase using you own words. It’s useful to make direct statements and observations like, Jones claims that urban building policy has a direct impact on health and happiness

Avoid copy-pasting at this point. Paraphrase / put things in your own words. This way you learn the concept better, practice your ability to summarise, and you also produce a bit of original writing you can use later in an assignment or essay.

5. Review and do: When you’ve finished reading, review your notes and do something with the ideas you’ve read. You can speak them out loud, explain them to someone, write a paragraph about the ideas (practicing your citations as you go), create a mock exam question for yourself… All of this will help you enjoy reading more, feel more confident, and achieve more with what you’ve read.

OK so that’s the STARR method to read strategically or read actively. This will help you focus, work more efficiently, retain ideas, and become more confident in your study subjects.

Too much to read and take notes on?

When you have a lot of different readings, or need to do a “literature review”, try a literature matrix (or reading matrix). This is a simple table that captures key ideas from each reading. It forces you to be efficient, encourages you to paraphrase or put things in your own words, and it it gives you a tidy record of your readings for when you have to write about them later.

literature matrix showing strategic reading note-taking
A reading matrix collects ideas for future reference

Use the STARR method above plus a literature matrix to keep track. Just try not to take too many notes in there. The key is brevity. You can expand on ideas later if you want to. Add more columns if you need to. For example, if you’re in science, you might add columns for the methods and findings of each reading.

OK, if you adopt these active reading strategies I think you’ll find you enjoy reading more, feel less stressed about it, and develop your confidence in the subject more quickly.

For suggestions on note-making styles, see our Take notes page. And a final bonus tip: try a reading group. Yes, you can read in groups. You can work quietly, read aloud, have chats. This can help to motivate you and get deeper into your studies. See our page on groups for more ideas.

What is a journal article and how do I use them?

A journal article is published research, theory, or ideas. Academics do research or com up with ideas and submit proposals to journals for articles. These proposals are reviewed by other academics (peer-reviewed), and then about a year or two later the article is published. The purpose is to advance knowledge in specific fields, find answers to questions, figure out better ways of doing things.

There are millions of journal articles, so searching is kind of an art form. You need to figure out good search keywords, use the filters on the search tools, and use reference lists you already have access to to find a few first articles. When you find one good article, see what else that author has written, or look at the references in their writing for ideas. If you use Google Scholar you can click the “cited by” button to see who else has used the article in their own writing. This can lead you to other interesting publishing. There are many tricks and methods to searching for and narrowing down your reading.

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