Reading and note-taking for graduate students

Return to Reading and Note-making

Self-reflection and introductionI. SpeedII. ComprehensionIII. RetentionIV. VolumeV. Focus and concentrationVI. Reducing stress
Self-reflection and introduction

Self-reflection questions

  • How strong are my reading skills?
  • Do I read with a critical eye?
  • Do I manage the vast amount of information I need to read?


And you thought you had a lot to read in your undergrad program. Welcome to Grad School!

A true story: When I was doing my Master’s one of my professors passed me a book which had nothing to do with his course or my field of study. He said gleefully, “I’ve been reading this interesting book. I thought you might enjoy it, too,” and shoved it into my reticent hands. What a position he had put me in. On the one hand, I felt obligated to read this book since he had chosen ME to read it. On the other hand, I was so swamped and overwhelmed with my own reading that the thought of having to open the front cover of this book made me feel nauseous.

Unlike undergraduate courses where some students do minimal reading and still succeed, graduate studies require a student to read large volumes of information. Reading at graduate school is the way in which students glean new ideas, theories, models, etc. that inform their theses and research papers. Grad students are asked to actively engage with the information they read. For example, a literature review requires a student to read with great breadth and depth within his/her research area and then synthesize the ideas into a unified whole. The number of documents to read, analyze, and synthesize to compile a literature review can be mindboggling. So consider organizing a chunk of time each day to read. Daily reading will help you stay on top of your inbox, thereby reducing stress and helping to maintain motivation.

To succeed in graduate school, you must have strong academic reading skills.

Reading issues

This module covers the following issues related to reading:

  1. Speed
  2. Comprehension
  3. Retention/Recall
  4. Volume of Reading
  5. Focus & Concentration
  6. Reducing Stress
Being aware of yourself as a reader

Being aware of yourself as a reader


It’s important to be aware of your knowledge, skills, and attitudes to the text you are about to read. Before you start reading, reflect on the following three areas:

1.   Background knowledge/schema

How much background knowledge do I have of the topic?

2.   Attitude

What is my attitude to the reading? (Do I feel motivated? Do I feel like putting it off?)

3.   Concentration and focusing

How well will I be able to concentrate and focus on the reading?

Speed strategies

Speed strategies



Skimming is reading, but for a particular purpose. When we skim a text, we are taking mental notes of the outline/presentation of the material, picking up what stands out, and surveying headings and keywords. It is not reading for understanding, but it can be used as an initial step to gather information.

For more information on Skimming, visit the Reading and Note-taking module (for undergraduate students) and use the Skimming: A Checklist tool in the PDF.

Building your vocabulary

  • Play/do word games and puzzles;
  • Read lots and widely;
  • Make a personal dictionary of new terms, jargon, phrases.

For second language speakers of English, vocabulary acquisition (both academic and non-academic) is an ongoing, daily process. Strive to learn a few new words each week. Reading to your kids can also be a fun and easy way to pick up useful vocabulary.

Types of Comprehension

II. Comprehension

Good comprehension involves:

  • Being able to select and understand what you need
  • Retaining and recalling the information
  • Linking the new information to existing information

Comprehension is affected by:

  • Level of difficulty, complexity, and even interest
  • Background knowledge
  • Jargon, new vocabulary
  • Knowledge of English language structure

Types of reading comprehension

According to Makau (1990) there are 3 types of reading:

  1. Content reading — understanding the information
  2. Empathic reading — understanding the spirit of the message
  3. Critical reading — combines the first two with analysis and evaluation


Source: Makau, J. (1990). Reasoning and communication: Thinking critically about arguments. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Comprehension strategies

Comprehension strategies

SQ4R: Survey, Question, Read, React, Recite, Review

The SQ4R assists university students to read more effectively and efficiently. SQ4R is a powerful approach that incorporates a number of reading skills and techniques such as skimming, elaborating, note-making, and reciting.

To see how SQ4R can be applied to textbook reading, visit the Reading and Note-taking module (for undergraduate students) and see the “SQ4R for Textbook Reading” and “Mindmap of SQ4R” tools in the pdf.

SQ4R can also be applied to any written genres such as research papers. See Using SQ4R to Read a Research Paper.


Reading research papers

One of the common sources of information at grad school is the research paper as they are the means by which a student learns new contributions to his/her field. Because a research paper adheres to a strict format (i.e. introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion), on the surface they might appear easy to read. However, their condensed style (due to page limitations and assumed knowledge of audience) requires strong reading comprehension skills. Alongside general comprehension of the information provided, the reader needs to analyze and critique the thesis, determine the reliability and validity of the research data, and judge whether the paper is worthy of further attention. To do so requires critical thinking, which is covered in the next section.

See Using Guiding Questions to Assist with Reading a Research Paper and How to Read Research Papers.


III. Retention

61% of what you read is lost after the first hour and 100% is lost after 24 hours unless…you revisit the information.

The strategies you choose to assist you in remembering are a matter of preference. You might find one strategy that works very well for you; however, we recommend using multiple modalities (e.g. many senses) to increase retention and recall.

Retention strategies

Retention strategies


There are many different types of note-making strategies. See Note-making Strategies.

Cornell System

The Cornell system produces an excellent note from which you can review ideas. 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-maker to write key terms, concepts, sequences, and/or questions that will cue the brain to remember the detail notes. The bottom section 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 note-maker writes down his/her 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.

For more information, including examples, see the Active Reading and Note-making module (for undergraduate students). Find the Cornell System in the pdf.

Mind Mapping

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

First of all, consider your learning styles: 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 colours. 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 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’.

For more information, including examples, see the Active Reading and Note-making module (for undergraduate students). Find Note-making with Mindmaps and Combining Cornell and Mindmaps in the pdf.

Visual Techniques

Some visual learners like to highlight text with colour. Colours can aid comprehension and retention if employed effectively. For example, each colour represents a different type of detail: one colour for main ideas/themes, another colour for subordinate ideas, etc. Some readers   who use mind maps as a note-making tool connect the coloured text to the same colours on their mind map.

However, use highlighting sparingly. Why? Highlighting can be used as a procrastination tactic so you can avoid really understanding and working with the text. Highlighting is usually about marking what you should learn versus learning it now!

Auditory Techniques

Reading & Reciting Out loud

Trying to recite out loud, at least some of the time, may have a positive effect on retention. For information on the importance of reading and reciting out loud, see Why You Should Read Out Loud? in our module on Reading and Note-making (for undergraduate students).

How to deal with all the reading?

IV. Volume

How to deal with all the reading?

Keep on Top of the Pile: On your daily schedule, set aside a block of time called ‘Reading’, preferably at the same time each day so you become habituated to a reading routine.

Reduce Volume to essential things and then read them in the way appropriate to that specific task

Read for Purpose: For example: get an overview, read to do an assignment, read for studying (reading to access information), in-depth insight into a theory, argument, process, prepare for a seminar, etc.

Don’t Panic: Don‘t let the reading list on the syllabus scare you. Professors don‘t expect you to read it all. They are simply giving you additional reference, insights into topic, etc.

Tips for focus and concentration

V. Focus and concentration

  • Minimize distractions (e.g., texts, TV shows, friends)
  • Know your best concentration span for reading and stick to it and then take a break. Try the 50-10-50 technique: 50 minutes reading, 10 minute break, 50 minutes reading.
  • Don’t try to read when tired

For more information and strategies to help with focus and concentration, see Ideas Just Sweep Me Away: How to Stay On-Task While Reading.

You can also see the Improving Your Concentration tool in our Active Reading and Note-making module (for undergraduate students).

Tips for reducing stress

VI. Reducing stress

Many aspects of life at grad school may cause stress. One big stressor is trying to keep on top of the huge workload, which includes a never-ending pile of documents to read. Therefore, improving your reading skills, both speed and comprehension, might be one way to reduce your stress.

RELAX and have guilt-free play

  • Read for pleasure
  • Work as hard at play as you do at work
  • You will always have an ‘in-tray’ so do what you can today and don’t worry about tomorrow

For more information on stress management, see our Managing Stress at Graduate School module.

An excellent book outlining the importance of guilt-free play is Neil Fiore’s 2007 book, The NOW Habit: A strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play.