Reading and Note-making for Undergrads

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IntroductionI. SpeedII. ComprehensionIII. RetentionSelf-Assessment
Reading Myths

Reading myths

MYTH 1. I have to read every word.

Reality: You will lose reading speed if you try to read every word. Read for ideas; do not process each word. However…you need to read all ―content words, i.e. nouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs, and linking words (e.g. and, however, because) as these words hold meaning.

MYTH 2. Reading once is enough.

Reality: Start with a skim read to get the gist and main ideas. Then, reread the passage (perhaps several times, depending on the task) for deeper meaning. However…there are situations where depth of comprehension is not essential so skimming is enough.

MYTH 3. It is sinful to skip passages.

Reality: Note whether a paragraph describes a main idea or supporting detail. You should never skip a main idea paragraph. However…depending on the purpose for reading and the level of detail provided in the passage, it might be possible to skip some passages which contain redundancy or extra information.

MYTH 4. If I skim or read too fast, my comprehension will drop.

Reality: Comprehension comes from extracting the main ideas, not slow painful reading. You need to find a balance between your speed and comprehension. However…consider the purpose for reading. For example, if you are reading for detail, you will need to slow down and read more methodically.

Modified from Dartmouth University’s reading resources.

University students read enormous volumes of information which need to be understood and retained. Often students feel overwhelmed with the amount of reading required to do well in their courses. While there is no denying that students have to read hundreds of pages each term, those who possess effective reading skills and strategies cope well and succeed.

This module helps you assess your present reading skills and determine how to make them more effective. This module is not only for poor readers. You might be an excellent reader, yet wish to hone your skills and be more efficient when you read.

The module provides reflective questions, information on key issues, and practical strategies for improving your overall reading. Tools to assist you in this process are found in the Tools Section at the end.

Setting up for reading

How reading fits into studying and learning skills

Study and learning skills contain 3 parts:

INPUT: Reading is input.

PROCESS: Understanding and remembering what you read is process.

OUTPUT: Putting it all together on the exam or essay is output.

Reading is a critical skill in developing excellent thinking skills, which require you to:

  • organize knowledge and facts
  • become automatic (accurate and fast) with basic skills, facts
  • look for patterns in a new task
  • recognize connections, to achieve a deep understanding
  • experiment with different learning strategies, and learn when to apply them
  • be self-aware, about when you do or do not understand

Setting up for reading

Pre-reading questions:

  • Do I enjoy reading, or do it only when necessary?
  • Is reading one of my preferred ways of gaining information?
  • Am I realistic about the effort required to read and understand new material?

Ready for reading questions:

  • Do I need to read this?
  • Do I need to read it from this source?
  • Do I know what is required for the assessment: e.g. do I need to read it all or just parts of it? Can I read this? Do I have prior knowledge to understand? Time? Skills?

Good readers prepare themselves to read before they put eye to page. They assess the purpose of the reading, their goals for reading, and also the expectations of the professor.

Answering the questions below before you begin to read will make your reading more efficient, effective, and meaningful.

Topic Question
Purpose/Goal
  • What is required of me?
  • What are the expectations of the professor vis-à-vis the readings?
Sources of Information
  • What sources of information are required (e.g., Do I need to read the textbook)?
  • Are there alternative ways of getting the same information from other sources (e.g., internet)?
Environment
  • What environments do I need for reading well (e.g., best time of day, best location)?
Quantity
  • How much reading needs to be done?
  • How much do I want to do?
Nature of the Readings
  • What is the nature of the materials to be read (e.g., journal article, novel, textbook, bulletin)?
Time
  • How much time do I have available for this reading?
  • Have I organized my time so that I can get the reading done?
  • How long do I estimate the reading will take?
Being aware of yourself as a reader

Being aware of yourself as a reader

MYTH: I have one way of learning and reading.

REALITY: Evidence-based research data do not support the common-sense notion of a preferred learning style or the utility of a teaching method associated with a preferred learning styles. Although many students are committed to the idea of Learning Styles, such as visual-auditory-kinesthetic, we all can adapt to various circumstances and learn effectively.

See “The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education” by PM Newton 2015
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4678182/

A reader’s approach will depend on many factors, such as

  1. Background knowledge/schema: How much background knowledge do I have of the topic?
  2. Attitude: What is my attitude to the reading? e.g. Do I feel motivated? Do I feel like putting it off? Do I only read material I’m interested?
  3. Concentration and focusing: How well will I be able to concentrate and focus on the reading?

Some strategies to increase focus while reading include:

  • Read in a quiet space, or one with a helpful amount of background buzz.
  • Read small sections and then make notes of details. It is not reasonable to expect yourself to understand the whole chapter after 1 reading from start to finish.
  • Engage your thinking by asking questions as you read.
  • Summarize in your own words: what was this section about?
  • Designate time to think and develop your ideas.
  • Balance the need to learn details with your desire to understand and generate abstract conceptualizations.

See Focus and Concentration module for more suggestions to increase focus.

  1. Content: What is my most effective approach to reading this type of material?

 

Tools

  • Learning Styles and Approaches to Reading
  • Improving Your Concentration
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Strategies based on content

Strategies Based on Content of Material

Any dense reading will be easier if you first have a sense of what to expect

  • Inspect the layout of the material for cues as to its organization: pay attention to bold print, size of type for titles and subtitles, use of side bars, review questions.
  • Develop an outline before you read, by writing down titles. This “road map” will help you see the logical pattern and goal of the reading.

If the material requires you to focus on the details, facts, what has already been discovered and described, then:

  • Relate those details to the broader concepts;
  • Apply facts to the “real world;”
  • Think of implications of the facts; and
  • Avoid making notes that are just copying from the text, article or lab manual.

If the material requires you to focus on a deep understanding, then:

  • Focus on “theory-to-application:” push yourself to move from your theoretical understanding to practical use of concepts solving problems or analyzing key themes;
  • Record facts in your notes so you have something specific to study from later on;
  • Provide enough detail to be able to teach or explain your notes to someone else; and
  • Avoid getting side-tracked on appealing new theoretical ideas.

 

If the material requires you to pay attention to pictures, graphs, charts, and the visual construction of words (e.g. Latin based medical terms).

  • Represent as much of the written text as possible in graphic form like a mind map or CONstruct to visualize details and connections, or tables and charts to compare and contrast information. Go to the “Reading and Note-Making” module in the Learning Strategies website for details of these methods.
  • Translating graphics, charts etc. into words, as ultimately words will be required to communicate with others or write exams.
  • Learn new vocabulary by parsing words into familiar sections, and using cue cards for drilling.
  • Use colour, underling and boxes to highlight key concepts.
  • Learn how to use mind maps for summarizing texts and notes. Use arrows to draw relationships between concepts.

If the material is text heavy

  • Skim first to get the over view of the material: length? Key topics? New or familiar content?
  • Consider how long you can read before you lose focus. 40-50 minutes is about average.
  • Read aloud or sub-vocalize the text. Hear the sound of the words in your mind.
  • Talk to yourself as you read: ask questions to help guide your focus, and then answer your own questions
  • Write notes at the end of each section or sub-section of a chapter. The Cornell method may be helpful to you. See the “Reading and Note-Making” for details of this method.
  • Tape yourself as you summarize key points in a text, and then listen to the tape as a memory aid.
  • Read with a study friend, and discuss things you don’t understand

Generally, any strategy you use that helps you engage more to pay attention, think, and retain is great! Some strategies include

  • Read with a pointer or your finger on the line of print
  • Make notes as you go along, summarizing each small section
  • Draw diagrams or flow charts of how you would conduct an experiment or solve a problem. Go beyond the words on the page and try to apply the ideas.
  • Think of the “real world‟ implications of what you are reading.
  • Read within your attention span. Take breaks as needed and involve physical activity to reduce restlessness.
  • Try to determine the key sections of readings (ask your professor) to reduce the amount to be read.
  • Tap a rhythm or talk with your hands if it helps you concentrate.
I. Speed

I. SPEED

To read well you need both speed and good comprehension. Don‘t mistake the term ―speed to mean reading very fast. Speed refers to a pace which is requisite for the reading task. For example, when you survey and skim a text, you go very quickly down the page, trying to get the gist. By contrast a slower, more methodical pace is needed when reading for detail.

Regardless of the purpose for reading, slow readers possess several common attributes. Firstly, slow readers experience eye movement regression. That is, instead of their eyes moving forward like fast readers, their eyes move forward but then backwards to material already read.

Secondly, slow readers tend to look at each word in a sentence, something that is not necessary in English, a language with a high level of redundancy.

Using the Reading Speed Self-Test, see if you need to learn how to increase it.

Strategies to improve your speed

Strategies to improve your speed

1. Understanding how our eyes work

One step forward, two steps back!

Experiments with slow readers show that not only do these readers look at every word (called ‘fixation’), their eyes jump back to previously seen words (called ‘regression’).

small arrows moving to the right, one large arrow above moving two arrows to the left

“I am looking at each word while I read this sentence.”

Humans have very good peripheral vision. The old axiom ‘having eyes in the back of your head‘ comes from our ability to see things that are not directly in front of us. In fact we can see about 180 degrees from a point in front of our eyes. Peripheral vision was necessary in ancient times to protect ourselves from other predators. Even though we no longer need to fend off Sabre- toothed tigers, our peripheral vision is just as important today as it was thousands of years ago. Having this ability allows us to read many more words than those you are looking directly at.

Once you understand your eyes’ patterns and build your reading confidence, you will no longer feel the urge to fixate on each word or regress and your reading speed will increase.

small arrows to the right

“I am looking at large groups of words in this sentence and don’t regress.”

Read Speed-Reading: Using a Pacer in our Tools section for strategies to improve your reading speed.

2.   Skimming

Remember the Reading MYTHS earlier in the module? Many poor readers are afraid to skim or believe that skimming is not real reading. Boy, are they wrong! Good reading encompasses many skills: skimming, scanning, reading for detail, reading for implied meaning, understanding words from context, etc. You need all these skills to be a good reader.

Reading approaches such as SQ4R and other speed reading techniques will help you become a more adept skim reader. Also, review the Skimming Checklist in our Tool Section.

3.   Vocabulary building

Build your vocabulary in your discipline. Overlearn definitions and basic concepts. Create your own ‘dictionary’ of new terms and phrases or put them on cue cards. Review your new terms daily.

Active reading and comprehension

To fully comprehend your academic readings at university, you will need to:

  1. Recognize different genres or types of writing e.g. persuasive or argument essay, fiction, rhetorical analysis, review, criticism, news article. Genres centre on audience and purpose.

For more information, go to Purdue University‘s OWL Writing Lab .

  1. Understand and use different types of thinking:e.g. deductive, analytical, critical. For more information, see some of our Tools:
    1. Levels of Thinking
    2. Levels of Questions
    3. Critical Reading Checklist
  1. Have an advanced level of the English language: both syntax (rules) & semantics (meaning). For more information, refer to writer’s handbooks, English grammar books, dictionaries, and thesauruses. You can also see our very own Writing Centre.
  1. Read actively!

Active reading helps; passive reading hinders

  • Have you ever noticed yourself drifting off while you‘re reading?
  • Have you ever found that you’ve finished a reading passage but can’t remember much or any of what you’ve read?
  • Does reading feel boring? Exhausting? A waste of time?

If you answered yes to any of the above, it’s possible you are a passive reader.

What is ACTIVE reading?

When you read actively, you are in control of the INPUT of information. When you read actively, you are engaged in a PROCESS of discovery. Reading becomes a quest to find the answer to questions you have posed prior to reading rather than waiting passively for the words to wash over you. This engagement allows you to stay alert and interested. Questioning engages the brain, puts it into gear, which means you are less likely to drift off or get bored.

Students, who might otherwise read actively, can fall victim to passive reading when faced with their course readings. These students feel that academic reading is more difficult and, therefore, requires a more laborious process. However, this is not the case. Due to its demands for higher order thinking skills, academic reading encourages students to take control of the reading process.

Strategies for active reading and comprehension

Strategies for active reading and comprehension

1. SQ4R

SURVEY: scan the material for the ‘big picture’ understanding

QUESTION: make up questions

READ & RECORD: read for a purpose, i.e. to answer the question; take notes

RECITE: key concepts in your own words

REVIEW: look back at your notes

At first the SQ4R approach might seem like extra work. However, when you consider that you don’t have to reread, and that you are studying and preparing for exams all at the same time, then you actually save time. Also, you won’t end up cramming thus reducing anxiety and feeling more in control.

 

2. ConStruct = concept + structuring

Goal: to identify and prioritize important ideas and main points in readings

Method: Use a diagram to show the conceptual relationships in a selection of readings

ConStruct is an excellent approach for students who feel they ‘get lost in the detail’ and when reading word problems in math and science.

See: ConStruct Procedure

 

3.Multipass

 The Multipass is similar to ConStruct method but you don‘t have to read as thoroughly as there is no diagram required.

Goal: to extract enough information from a text without having to read it thoroughly

Method: You need to have a text that has questions provided either in the text or by the instructor/professor.

See: Multipass Procedure

ConStruct and Multipass methods are sourced from: Crux, S. (1991). Reading Fluency & Comprehension form Learning Strategies for Adults: Compensations for Learning Disabilities. Toronto: Wall & Emerson.

Strategies for reading retention

Strategies for reading retention

Students have different ways to retain and recall information. Some like to highlight text with coloured markers; others jot down comments in the margins of their books. Highlighting text can be a good start but needs to be followed up by reworking and reviewing the information. Otherwise, you will forget what you’ve highlighted and end up rereading the text.

The most popular, and arguably the best, strategy is making a note while you are reading. Research shows that that process of making a note might aid recall. Regardless, reviewing your notes definitively improves test results. So, the message here is do both for maximum learning.

Other popular retention strategies are

  • making and using cue or flash cards
  • reciting your information out loud
  • describing the information to someone else e.g. in a study group
  • creating visual images & stories
1. Note-making

1.  Note-making

The Cornell System

The Cornell system produces an excellent note from which you can easily and quickly study.

It incorporates a section for traditional notes with a ‘Cue Column’ and a ‘Summary’ section. The Cue Column, on the left of the page, allows the note-taker to write key terms, concepts, sequences, and/or questions that will cue the brain to remember the detail notes. The bottom quarter of the page is reserved for a brief summary which is very useful when reviewing notes.

It can be used very effectively with the SQ4R system. At the “Q” step of SQ4R, the notemaker writes down their question in the ‘Cue Column‘. Questions in the Cue Column are then used in the revision and review stages. The Cue Column can be easily folded over to hide the notes thus acting as a natural self-test mechanism.

See: Cornell Note-taking System

Mind mapping for readings

Why might you choose to make a concept or mind map as your note?

First of all, consider your LEARNING STYLE: visual, auditory, and tactile. Learners who are visual and/or tactile will benefit from constructing a graphic map of the information read. Visual learners like to see a visual representation of the reading materials while tactile learners like to do something when they read. For visual learners, mind mapping appeals to their love of images, pictures, and colors. For tactile learners, constructing a mind map while reading keeps you active so you don‘t lose concentration and focus. They are fun to make and can be easily redrawn for review purposes. Irrespective of your learning style, all readers can benefit from concept/ mind mapping as this type of note making requires the reader to distinguish main ideas from details. It is, therefore, a particularly useful method to employ if you are a reader who ‘gets lost in the detail.’

Making a mind map is a whole brain activity, i.e., it engages both left and right hemispheres of the brain. Try integrating a mind map into your Cornell Notes.

See: Note-making with Mind Maps, Combining Cornell with Mind Maps and Study Skills through Graphic Organizers

2. Cue or flash cards

2.  Cue or flash cards

Why use cue cards?

  • Portable
  • Quick test of understanding
  • Can be done during ‘found time‘ (small blocks of time in your schedule)
  • Repetition is an effective memory strategy
  • Making them constitutes studying!

How to use cue cards?

  • Always write the questions in complete sentences.
  • Keep the answers short.
  • Prioritize your information.
  • For definitions, write the ‘textbook‘ definition on one side and a paraphrased version on the flipside.

A strong case for using cue cards for exam preparation and study in courses such as Biology is found by Dr. Jensen at the University of Minnesota.

3. Study Groups

3.  Study groups

Studying in a group (2-4 people is a good size) is a great way to retain information. When you discuss and explain your readings to others, you ‘hear’ the information again which means you are reviewing. Studies show that students, who recite, i.e. say the information out loud, perform better on tests. Also, when you explain your ideas, it’s like teaching and we all know that to teach something well, you have to understand it well first.

4. Weekly review

4.  Weekly review

A good set of notes is easy and fun to review. Some notes, like mind maps, can be redrawn as part of the review process. The Cue Column in a Cornell note can be folded over to hide the notes section for easy self-testing. The important thing is to put weekly review into your schedule for each course. Ideally, start a new study session by reviewing all past notes (if you have good notes, this doesn’t take very long). The more frequently you see your notes, the more you will remember the content when the test rolls around.

5. Reading out loud

5.  Reading out loud

See: Why You Should Read Out Loud

6. Recording Lectures

6.  Recording Lectures

See: Creating Notes from Recorded Lectures

Self-Assessment and Next Steps

Self-Assessment Questions

  • Am I comprehending what I need to and as much as I need to? How has this reading fit into the course and other materials? Am I considering the purpose of reading before I begin?
  • Am I engaging my mind not just my eyes?
  • Could I describe explicitly the strategies I’m using to read a text (e.g. SQ4R, Cornell)? What am I doing to increase recall of what I’ve read?

The final step to becoming an excellent reader is regular and ongoing monitoring of your knowledge, skills and attitudes towards reading.

Before you embark on improving your reading abilities, list several reading goals for yourself in terms of:

  • knowledge you wish to gain
  • skills you wish to acquire
  • attitudes you wish to possess

For example, you might write the following about your Chemistry course:

Overall Goal: Keep up with my CHEM readings so I don’t have to read ten chapters two days before the final exam.

Knowledge: Learn how to read actively and take better notes.

Skills: Practice the Cornell note-taking system

Attitude: Stay focused when I’m reading; enjoy note-making and see value in reciting and reviewing my notes.