Can active reading actually improve your grades?
(Last updated: 13 May 2021)
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If we told you that during your time at university, changing how you're reading material could make a difference to the grade with which you graduate, would you believe us?
Just like anything that requires practise to be better – like piano playing, baking, tennis – reading is a skill. You can work on it to improve your ability, and in turn increase your chances of success at university.
Now, what type of reader are you? When you first read the title of this article, did you think about what its contents might entail? Did you make an assessment of how useful this article might be and consciously decide to read it based on that? Or, are you just browsing?
The point we’re trying to make here is that there is a difference between reading say, a fictional book or an article in a glossy magazine, and the reading you need to do at university. Sounds obvious, but you may be surprised by just how many students don’t take an active role in their academic reading. Being active when reading can make a tremendous difference to how much you learn. And being able to learn a lot in a short space of time is particularly important for two reasons. First, at university there is a lot of reading to do. If you are taking multiple classes in multiple different subjects, then this becomes even more significant. Second, not everything you’ll read will be interesting (in the same way that a novel you have chosen to read might be). So it pays to have great reading skills.
This blog post is designed to offer you some strategies for active reading, along with some tips and tricks about what to do when you are short on time and need to get through the basics of the material.
Active reading – what is it?
The Cambridge English Dictionary describes being passive as “not acting to influence or change a situation.” This is true of passive reading – when you are reading passively, you’re not analysing, critiquing or assessing the material being read.
Conversely, active reading requires far more involvement from the reader; it works like a discussion between the reader and the material. The active reader does not just sit there and flip through the assigned pages, but engages with the reading and critiques the development of ideas.
There are three parts to the reading process: before reading, during reading, and after reading. All three parts have a function, but the way they are approached is different for active and passive readers. Before reading, an active reader will seek out the title, think about the topic and look at the learning outcomes/subheadings for the reading. During reading, the active reader will break the material into manageable chunks and maintain focus. He or she might ask questions that they hope will be answered later in the chapter. After reading, an active reader will recall what has been read and summarise what they have learned.
How can you become an active reader, or improve further on your active reading skills? It takes practice and perseverance to master this skill, but it’s certainly not impossible. The following techniques will help you hone your reading abilities.
Common techniques for active reading
Skimming is a process of absorbing the main point without going into too much detail. If you are absolutely pressed for time, this is the minimum amount of work you should do. For an active reader this is only the first step. But if an exam is looming, reviewing the headings, topic sentences of each section, chapter introduction and summary offers at least some insight into what the chapter will contain.
For an active reader, skimming becomes the ‘before reading’ component as described above. It gives you the main topics you are going to review in the reading.
Critical reading is the questioning part of the reading process. Critical reading and active reading are almost synonymous. When you are reading critically, you are assuming that the author has made choices about what they are including in their own writing. It is your job as the reader to navigate what they are saying, to understand it, and to determine how the writing fits in to the larger picture. Being critical does not necessarily mean being negative, though that certainly can be one component that occurs in the critical reading process.
Scanning differs than skimming because with scanning you are looking for the response to a particular question. Scanning might be helpful if you are trying to answer a specific question (e.g. from the end of the chapter review or learning outcomes). Scanning is a useful tool for the ‘after reading’ process if you are having difficulty clarifying a particular point from the reading.
The SQ3R method
One of the main reading strategies that students can find useful is the SQ3R method, which asks students to survey (S), question (Q), read, recall, and review (3R).
It is important to note that the SQ3R method is a higher-level study skill, and something that you are going to use to read academic material like journal articles, textbooks, or research studies. You’ll likely have a far greater level of comprehension at the end of this process than if you employ a reading technique discussed above, but it takes time to complete.
This is key with academic reading: while you will get faster at the overall process, it still is going to take you much longer to read than your favourite novel. The outcome, however, is likely going to be a better score on the essay or exam linked to the reading, so taking the time to complete this strategy might be well worth it in the end.
So what’s involved with the SQ3R method of reading?
You begin with a skim of the title of the chapter, the introduction, the table of contents, any illustrations, photos, charts or graphs, and the summary paragraph at the end of the chapter. At this point you are looking for any strange vocabulary that you are unfamiliar with (and if you find some, you are going to want to look up the definitions before you get to the next stages). You are also trying to figure out what the main point of the chapter will be and what arguments you think will be developed.
Surveying should not take you long – maybe just a few minutes or so. What you are trying to do is get the main point and orient yourself with the ideas that are still to come.
Here, as the title suggests, you are looking to answer four main questions:
- What is the main point?
- What evidence supports this main point?
- What examples are being used as evidence?
- How is this related to the rest of the chapter/article or to other parts of the book, or to you as a student/human?
One way that you might want to get started with this is to turn the first heading or the first sentence of each paragraph into a question. By doing this, you are effectively telling yourself what you need to look for in order to find that main point.
A point to remember with this stage is that not only are you creating a question with that first heading, but you are also looking to answer it. If you only create the question, you are not really meeting the criteria here and putting yourself at a disadvantage.
A fairly self-explanatory step, you next need to sit down and read the entire material.
Do your best to stay focused on the material. It can be difficult to focus for long periods of time, so try and break your readings up into 25-minute chunks with a five-to-ten-minute break after each session. This will help your brain stay active and involved in the task.
Read our article on The Pomodoro Technique – how to break your task load down into chunks for better productivity >
In addition, we know that taking notes while reading increases the level of retention, so it is important that you note-take while doing bulk reading. These notes do not have to be particularly detailed, but they should probably be handwritten (because this leads to even better retention rates). You can write notes in a notebook or just add them to the margins of whatever you are reading. If you are using a highlighter, do so sparingly. Your goal is not to become really good at highlighting; your goal is to understand and retain the information in the chapter.
Sometimes referred to as ‘recite’ rather than ‘recall’ (though the purpose remains much the same), this step requires you try and verbalise what you have read in a section or chapter. Here, you want to close the book and explain to yourself (out loud preferably) what you understood and how the questions you initially posed were answered in their entirety.
This step is great for wheedling out what you don’t really know. If you can’t verbalise what you have read, you probably didn’t fully understand it in the first place. So, open the book and skim the section again, they try to recall once more.
While some people only like to recall after they have read an entire chapter, others like to do it after every section. This choice is up to you, but trying to recall a long chapter might be particularly challenging and your retention may end up being limited.
The final step in the active reading process is the review; it may be last, but it is certainly not least in importance. This process seeks to combat our human tendency to forget what we read after time has passed. It involves going over your notes repeatedly, or re-thinking about the larger perspective on the topics within the material.
In the lead up to an exam, reviewing your notes and the material daily is advised. If you are not necessarily preparing for a test, a weekly review should suffice.
To recap, we kicked off above with discussing the difference between active and passive reading. Try wherever you can in your university studies to be an active reader – save the passiveness for your recreational reading.
Then we covered some of the more common types of active reading, as well as the SQ3R method, which requires time and effort to master but will be very worth it, if you choose to use it. Don’t be afraid to try and use these reading strategies as you work to become a stronger reader of academic texts.
By regularly practising active reading, you will increase your ability to retain information, become better at understanding texts more quickly, and improve your critiquing skill – a wholly fundamental part of essay writing and answering exam questions.
Remember too, that changing old habits take time, and active reading may take you a while to master; persevere and you are likely to become a much better overall reader, and student.