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Top tips to master college-level reading

Top tips to master college-level reading

With the start of the new academic year, getting back to the books – or the tablet, if you prefer – can be challenging. Check out a few strategies to help you succeed

August 24, 2023 at 4:00pm

The semester has begun and with that comes the normal academic rush: preparing for each class meeting, juggling required assignments, getting ready for upcoming midterm exams.

The one way to improve in all of those areas? Brush up on your reading skills.

Whether you’re taking courses in science, history, literature – or even math – there’s usually some level of reading involved. You read textbooks and discipline-specific documents, scholarly articles and essays, novels and nonfiction, abstracts and reports.  

So, how do you master the art of college-level reading? Vicenta Shepard, director of the Center for Academic Success, has suggestions for everyone.

1) Scan headings and subheadings before you start reading.

Especially when tackling a textbook, take a moment to flip through titles and headings or graphics featuring “terms to know” before actually getting started reading. This helps your brain to frame the information it’s about to receive and to focus on the important terms when you get to those sections.

If you find yourself coming up with questions and wondering about explanations based on your reading of the subheads and terms, that’s a good sign. It means your engaging with the text. This will help you better understand what you read.

2) Pace yourself when reading.

Try not to overload yourself with info. If you read non-stop for hours, chances are you won’t remember as much as if you had paced yourself. Instead of trying to do as much as possible in one sitting (which can be exhausting), break up reading into chunks over several hours or even days. 

Read in 20 or 25-minute intervals with breaks as needed. Drink some water, take a quick walk around your room, rest your eyes and come back to the text refreshed. This helps your brain to absorb the concepts better and builds your stamina to retain information.

3) Highlight when necessary and digest the info.

It’s best not to highlight while reading something for the first time. Otherwise, you might end up highlighting everything because it is all new, and when you go back to study for exam time, you’re left wondering what was actually important.

Instead, read a section, take a moment to think about what you've read and go back to highlight whatever stands out as most significant. As you're doing so, try to digest the concepts. Think through what the information means and try to apply it to a situation or a problem you’ve faced before.

“When you bring your background knowledge into what you’re reading, you achieve understanding,” Shepard explains. “You don’t just absorb the information, you transform the information.”

4) Visualize the text.

Don’t be afraid to take notes while you’re reading – it’ll help you better understand the concepts. This could mean annotating the text and adding reminders in the margins of a textbook or article, or grabbing a notebook and drawing out a diagram to help you think through the information.

There are strategies that are particularly helpful for specific disciplines, says Shepard. “Sometimes, you need to see it in 3D,” she says.

For example, students taking organic chemistry and calculus II often find they need to visualize the information to fully understand it and may physically use models while studying and learning the material.

Organizing the information in a way that makes sense to you will help you remember it, Shepard adds. Strategies include creating charts or diagrams like concept maps (which help you visualize connections and relationships between different topics).

5) Prep before class.

The strategies above work best when you read before coming to class. If you read before class time, you’ll be prepared to hear the professor talk about concepts you’ve already thought through. This is crucial for minimizing anxiety during class because you won’t feel bombarded with loads of new information and you’ll be able to better engage with the professor’s explanations and any new information presented.

This is especially vital, adds Shepard, if you are in a “flipped classroom.” The flipped classroom model (often implemented in science courses at FIU) embraces a teaching strategy that asks students to read the material, watch tutorials or conduct research before class, and then apply that material while working through questions and problems during class time. To participate fully and engage in class, you need to have read the material.

6) Tailor your reading strategies.

When you’re studying for an exam, you’ve usually got a time constraint, a deadline. When you’re doing your regular reading assignments, there’s less pressure. The strategies described above are particularly relevant when completing your everyday assignments.

If you’re hunkering down to study for an exam, your professor might have mentioned some particular concepts or ideas you need to brush up on. Make sure you read through those sections, understand them and check your notes.

A couple other strategies include reviewing important terms and making sure you can explain concepts or apply formulas that professors spent a good portion of class time discussing.

Writing out information and concepts, on flash cards, for example, is another good study technique as it can help you recall information.

Want more? Check out reading and learning resources to help you maximize your time and efforts.

Supporting Your Academic Experience

The Center for Academic Success is located in the Green Library Room 120 at MMC and Academic Center 1 Room 160 at BBC. Services are delivered in person an online via one-on-one sessions, small groups, study halls and workshops. The center is open seven days a week during the fall semester (M: 9 a.m.- 6 p.m.; T/W/Th: 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; F: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat.: noon-5 p.m.; Sun.: 3 p.m.-8 p.m.) Undergraduates at all levels are welcome.

Students can access tutoring in a variety of subject areas, as well as participate in programs that develop their critical thinking and learning strategies. Tutoring sessions geared specifically to improving reading can also be requested.