Reading is a necessary part of college and ultimately grad school, plain and simple. Perhaps you consider it a necessary evil … or perhaps you take a good deal of pleasure in it. No matter what your perspective, however, the crucial point to understand is that you must be able to read in volume. And that means doing it quickly, efficiently and with maximum comprehension.
While many people suffer from the misconception that some people are “good” at reading and others aren’t, this is not at all true. The difference between effective and ineffective readers is quite simple, actually: better readers know the tricks. If you want that to be you, we’ve got good news.
You can learn to become a better reader, and quickly. Whether your classes demand that you study classic literature, dense science textbooks or compelling rhetoric from the brightest orators throughout history, you can learn to absorb and retain material without spending hours upon hours of your time doing it.
To that end, we’re going to tackle five basic strategies that will help you rock your reading today. Let’s jump in.
#1 Master Different Types of Reading
Reading is a threatening prospect to many just because it seems like it automatically must take a long time, but that isn’t so. Of the following three reading strategies, only one is time-consuming. This has its uses, which we will discuss, but the other two allow you to quickly gather necessary information from what you read. Let’s cover each.
According to How to Learn, skimming and scanning are two of the most important strategies you can use for becoming a better reader. Skimming helps you absorb the main ideas of a text rapidly, without having to read every word.
The basic concept is you look in strategic places to get the most important information. Typically, main ideas are contained in titles and headlines, the first and last sentences of paragraphs (especially the first and last paragraph in a chapter or section), and any information surrounding vocabulary words. As you go through rapidly, you can quickly dismiss filler text, then go back to the most crucial areas and absorb those ideas more deeply.
Scanning is similar to skimming, in that you do not read all of a text. However, while skimming is for text you’re completely unfamiliar with and need to understand wholesale, scanning is when you’re looking for specific information. For instance, you might be looking for the answer to a homework question, a specific statistic or proof of a character’s motivations.
When you need only a small piece of information from a mass of words, you again need to know how to search. In a novel, for instance, you’d likely search by a proper noun (people, place or thing), while in a science textbook, you might search for a formula by trying to locate a specific chemical, concept or vocabulary word.
Okay, so not all reading is super rapid. Close reading involves actually paying attention to all the words in a text. This is important when you’re going to have an in-depth discussion, for instance, or when you’re writing a final paper and need to ensure your complete comprehension. Because close reading involves clarity and concentration, your main approach should be the elimination of distraction, which we will discuss next.
#2 Eliminate Distractions Ruthlessly
Distractions are your main enemy when reading. If you want to become a better reader in college, you need to practice the elimination of distractions at all times you’re trying to read. Typically, it’s not a good idea to study with friends or leave the television on while you read. While some people enjoy studying in the bustling environment of a coffee shop, others find it to be a major disruption. Know thyself.
Often, in college, you’ll read from a computer screen. While the Internet contains a lot of useful information, it also brings with it a wealth of distractions. If you’re going to read online, close ALL other windows, unless they also contain information you need. Mute your computer so you don’t have to hear ads when they come on. And sit far enough back that you can see the whole screen at once … moving your head back and forth to follow text will majorly slow you down.
Lastly, be aware that being tired or in a hurry are also distractions, one because you’re in danger of zoning out, the other because you’re too keyed up to really focus. If you want to read more effectively, you need to make time during useful hours.
#3 Put Diffused Learning to Work
Diffused learning is the idea that your brain makes its own connections when you’re not thinking about something. If you need to absorb difficult concepts, the best approach is to read the material once, then walk away. Give it a few hours or, ideally, a day or two. That way, your brain can chew over the ideas in the background, networking ideas together in ways you wouldn’t have done consciously. Then, read the material again and marvel at how much more you understand it.
#4 Become a Better Reader by Becoming a Better Writer
Reading and writing are different, but very closely related, skills. If you want to improve your reading abilities quickly, it’s important to also work on your writing. These two different approaches to language help you tackle material from different angles. Turning your reading into writing can involve the following techniques:
- Making notes or flashcards
- Writing up an outline
- Writing an essay
The last exercise, of course, is quite time-consuming, and you’ll likely only do it when required to in class. However, you’ve probably noticed how helpful it is to comprehension to have to write an essay, and you can use the same techniques in a much more rapid way. Simply take the ideas of the text and write them up long-form in a notebook or Word document. You’ll find the challenge of translating ideas to complete sentences is very helpful for improving your reading comprehension.
#5 Practice, Practice, Practice
Okay, so you’ve heard this one before. And yes, it’s a bit of a cliché. But you know what it also is? An excellent piece of advice that too few students actually take to heart. You quite simply can’t get good at anything until you put the skills to use for a significant amount of time. It may take you a few weeks or even months to learn to skim and scan, use diffused learning and write your way to reading more effectively.
Even if you struggle to do so, however, keep one thing in mind: you can get there. Many people have started as struggling readers, barely able to keep up with a college workload, only to come out on top after putting these skills to work intentionally, time after time. You too can do so.