Reading and Note-making for Undergrads

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IntroductionI. SpeedII. ComprehensionIII. RetentionSelf-Assessment

Introduction to Undergraduate Module

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. Even if you are an excellent reader, these resources can help you hone your skills and be more efficient.

The module provides reflective questions, information on key issues, and practical strategies for improving your overall reading.

Setting up for reading

Reading is integral to studying and learning

Study and learning skills contain three parts:

INPUT: What you read constitutes the input.

PROCESS: Understanding and remembering what you read is the process.

OUTPUT: Putting it all together (e.g., on the exam, in the essay) is the output.

Reading is critical for the development of excellent thinking skills, which require you to:

  • organize knowledge and facts;
  • become automatic (fast & accurate) with basic skills and facts;
  • look for patterns in a new task;
  • recognize connections to achieve a deep understanding;
  • experiment with different learning strategies and when to apply them; and to
  • 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, can make your reading more efficient, effective, and meaningful.

Topic Question
  • 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)?
  • What environments do I need for reading well (e.g., best time of day, best location)?
  • 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)?
  • 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

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. Don’t expect yourself to understand the whole chapter after one 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 concepts.

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?

The myth of learning styles

MYTH: I have one way of learning and reading (e.g., “I’m a visual learner”).

REALITY: Evidence-based research does not support the common-sense notion of a preferred learning style or the utility of a teaching method associated with learning styles. Although many students are committed to the idea, feeling that it just makes sense (“I’m such a visual learner, I always just need to see it.”), we all can adapt to various circumstances and learn effectively.

Source: “The Learning Styles Myth is Thriving in Higher Education” (2015).

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. Begin by inspecting the layout of the material for cues (e.g., bold print, size of type for titles and subtitles, use of side bars, review questions). Then, 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.

To focus on the details, facts, what has already been discovered and described:

  • 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.

To focus on 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.

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 (e.g., mind map, ConStruct: to visualize details and connections between concepts; tables and charts: to compare and contrast information).
  • Translating graphics and charts into words, since that’s what is 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.

To read material that 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



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.

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 center on audience and purpose. (More information: Purdue University‘s OWL Writing Lab.)
  2. Understand and use different types of thinking (e.g., deductive, analytical, critical). For more information, see some of our tools: Levels of Thinking, Levels of Questions, and Critical Reading Checklist.
  3. Have an advanced level of English: both syntax (rules) & semantics (meaning). For more information, refer to writer’s handbooks, English grammar books, dictionaries, and thesauruses. There are also a great deal of resources from SASS’s Writing Centre.
  4. Read actively! (See below.)

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, meaning you are more likely to think and learn and 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



 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?

All readers can benefit from concept/mind mapping, because 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.’

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.