The short guide below evolved out of a conversation with Miriam Posner (@miriamkp) of UCLA who was looking for ways to help her students read more quickly and effectively. These tips can help you retain more when reading academic texts and allow you to get through them at a quicker pace.
Here’s what I tell my students if they have trouble keeping up with the reading for my history and STS classes:
1. Read for argument. (Write it down.)
2. Figure out what details are important by seeing if they align (or strongly conflict) with the argument.
3. Be able to formulate your own response to the reading/argument, using evidence from the text. (You don’t have to agree with the argument but you should be able to give some specifics to show why you do or don’t.)
4. Have a sense of what the most important or interesting new thing you learned was. (This can help you see what you’ve accomplished & helps with memory/retention.)
Lastly, reading dense material is a process and you’ll get better at it. Remember too that the class discussion is part of the process that will help you truly “get” what you read, even if you’re still confused right after you finish reading a piece.
Note: These tips are also useful for reverse-engineering and dissecting successful writing, and for figuring out how to write your own papers.
For a PDF version of these tips for printing/saving, click here.
By way of concluding, I’d like to share a few personal notes about my pedagogy. It’s very important to me to give my students the opportunity to stretch themselves intellectually, because I have found that’s one of the most important ways that new knowledge gets created in people’s heads. And once it has been they’re able to share those insights and enrich the rest of us–not just in class but out in the world. It’s sort of like that old Arthur C. Clarke line: “‘The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
So I give them a lot of material to consider–this was what all of my most important classes did for me. Students seem to like this model and rise to the challenge. They see how knowledge gets constructed in those gaps as they stretch. I don’t want them to become overwhelmed and shut down, of course–inducing despair isn’t the same thing as productively challenging someone, and sometimes it’s difficult to walk that line as you teach a large course composed of students with different needs and abilities. So I try to give students a enough material so that they are never bored, and also equip them with the tools they need to approach that material.