How to Read Effectively in Various Disciplines

Learning Objectives

  • Explain tips for reading effectively in various disciplines (sciences, social sciences, and math)

Reading Online

It’s more and more likely that you’ll have to do a large portion of your reading for college online
(like this!). Because it is sometimes harder to focus on online readings when there are so many distractions readily available at your fingertips, it’s important to be extra thoughtful as you work through online text. Just as you would with a traditional textbook, we will call them “texts” here since you could be reading this on a screen. A
text is anything that can be read for meaning.

When you read for any class, take the time to minimize distractions. Use programs such as Mercury Reader, task-trackers, timers, and blockers to reduce unwanted distractions. Preview the text by scrolling through a section, making note of headers and keywords. Be careful when clicking on hyperlinks that you don’t end up losing sight of your initial reading. Navigate through the material in an intentional way. Take notes and annotate or outline either on your device, or with a pen and paper. These strategies will assist you with reading, no matter the subject area.

Reading in the Sciences

Reading in the sciences is likely different than reading in the humanities or for some of your other classes.

Drawing of a woman holding a molecule model on her palm.

Figure 1. Reading in science courses requires learning common patterns in scientific texts.

Explore the Text and Assignments

In a science text, it’s helpful to develop a base understanding of how the material is organized. Go over the course outline and the table of contents and compare the two. In addition, explore the lab manual, if you have one. 

You also benefit from knowing what you’re required to learn. Read the introduction of your assigned chapter and connect it with previous chapters or your prior knowledge of the topic. It is important to read the headings, subheadings, summary, and review questions. Remember that most science texts contain review questions; use them to guide your readings.

Look over the pictures, tables, diagrams, photographs, and other images. Sometimes those elements are easier to understand than the words. 

In the sciences, it is especially helpful to take notes, and learn basic terminology and vocabulary. Studying scientific root prefixes and suffixes and using context clues can help you understand new words.

Row of metallic rainbow-colored tubes with silver tops.

Figure 2. Look for common patterns in your reading to better understand the material in your science readings.

Analyze For Comprehension 

Scientific texts usually follow the same writing patterns. Once you can recognize and analyze them, your comprehension will increase.

The Classification Pattern: used by scientists to group and sub-group various things, objects, or areas. For example, a scientist who wishes to discuss the structure of a plant may break his topic into various subheadings as roots, stems, leaves, or flowers. Recognizing these structural parts in order of importance or position is essential to good comprehension and note-taking.

The Process Description Pattern: what the process is and how the process works. You need to understand what the description pattern is about. Is it about the process? Or how the process works?

The Factual-Statement Pattern: facts are usually used in defining things, in comparing or contrasting things, and in citing examples or illustrations. In science, the word “fact” has a more exacting meaning than in other areas. 

The Problem-Solving Pattern: usually found in passages from science texts which describe or recount past scientific problems, or scientific discoveries made through experimentation. When you’re confronted with the problem solving pattern, use the following questions to help you understand and analyze the passages.

  • What is the question or problem?
  • How was the question answered?
  • How do we know it was answered?

In addition, application of these questions can help you to separate the major and minor points.

Experiment-Instruction Pattern: to understand this pattern and to make sure that you follow the instructions exactly, use the following questions.

  • What is the purpose of the experiment?
  • What equipment is needed?
  • What, in order, are the basic steps involved?
  • What are the results?

Usually you must alternate between the reading matter and the experimental tool, so have the questions firmly in mind before attempting the experiment. In addition, use the questions when you have been given an assignment from your lab manual.

The Combination Pattern: not all science texts follow one pattern. Sometimes the writer may use a combination of patterns. For instance, a reading passage may begin with factual statement of definition, move to classifying the components or parts of the term being classified, and end up discussing a process. An awareness of all patterns is needed in this case to aid in distinguishing the main ideas and supporting details in the various pattern used.

Reading in the Social Sciences

Faced with a long list of readings in any social science field, you need to learn to read extensively as well as intensively; it is rarely practical to read everything word for word and line for line. Although close textual reading and interpretation is part of social science tradition, it is often not possible, especially for introductory and intermediate level survey courses. Instead of trying to read every line and word, consider the following suggestions for more efficient and effective course reading.

Organize reading over the weeks and months

Look over the material to be covered (syllabus and tables of contents in assigned books). Estimate the amount of reading for the semester and try to divide the work on a weekly basis. Try to keep your work and pace steady. It will become less burdensome and easier to manage.

Begin any reading assignment by reading the abstract, preface, introductions, and conclusions

The beginning and end are frequently the most important parts of any text because the author often signals his or her major themes and arguments. It is necessary, however, to look over, sometimes very carefully and completely, the central portions of the text to identify the evidence provided for the major themes/theses. Often, the topic sentence of paragraphs provide the links in the author’s argument.

Mechanics of reading and note-taking

Read the text and make marginal notes indicating what seemed like the strongest parts. When you have completed a once-through of the text, go back and take notes in outline form, by paraphrasing sentences or paragraphs until you have reduced the many pages of text to a few pages. (Make sure to keep an accurate citation to the work so that any future use of these notes and paraphrases can be appropriately cited—you do not want to find yourself engaged in plagiarism.)

Thinking Analytically about readings

  1. Classify the book or article according to kind and subject matter. What is the book about?
  2. Number the major parts in their order and relations. Outline these as you have outlined the whole.
  3. Define the specific problem or problems the author has tried to solve. What question does the author claim to address? You might also want to think about how this reading fits into the course. Why did the instructor place the reading at this point in the course? What is the topic on the syllabus? How does this reading provide an answer or information for this topic?
  4. What theoretical statements does the author make? A theoretical statement proposes a relationship. For example, structural theories of deviance suggest that deviance (that which is to be explained) is a consequence of the structure (organization of the parts) of a society. In other words, social structure produces deviance.
  5. What are the concepts and variables used? Become familiar with the author by defining keywords. Know the details of the argument.
  6. How does the author’s argument/ position compare with that of others who address the same question or related questions? Where are the points of similarity and difference?
  7. What value judgments does the author make? What values does the author assume readers will share? What assumptions does the author make that may be contestable?
  8. What is the author’s methodology? In other words, be concerned not only with the methods used by the author but also with the kinds of arguments implied or given about what methods are more or less appropriate.
  9. What constitutes evidence in this reading?
  10. Determine which of the problems the author has solved and which she has not. Of those not solved, decide which the author knows she has failed to solve. If you disagree with the author, on what basis do you rest your disagreement? Is the author uninformed, misinformed, illogical, imprecise, or incomplete? Criticize fairly; do not pass judgment based on personal opinion, taste, or preference. Is the argument internally consistent? Does the evidence (both that presented by the author and other evidence in the field) support the argument?

Reading for Math Class

Unlike some classes where you are able to skim over some readings to look for specific information, readings for a math class require careful reading of every word. Math texts rely heavily on practice problems, so you will typically find a few paragraphs of explanation and introduction, then problems. You want to make sure you have a pencil and paper in hand, and even if you think you know how to do the problem, it’s a good idea to work through every example. Be sure to plan enough time for this, and work slowly through each step. Write down your notes during each step as well, so if you are confused about anything, you’ll be able to pinpoint which step is giving you a hard time.

Here are some tips for working through a solved problem in a math text:

  1. Work through the problem one step at a time.
  2. Close the book and try to work it again on your own.
  3. Repeat until you can reproduce the solution with the book closed.
  4. Try not to memorize the solution.
  5. Keep track of “what to do” to move from each line to the next.
  6. It’s okay if your version has more lines than the author’s. A problem may take you two or three steps to accomplish what the author does in one. This is a good sign that you’re thinking for yourself!
  7. Be patient. It’s common to spend an hour or two on a single page. It’s worth your time to learn the process.

After you can work through the solved problems on your own, the homework should be much easier since there will be similar problems. Time spent on problems the author has solved for you will pay off in higher grades.

Don’t worry if the author or your instructor makes it “look easy.” They work hard when you aren’t looking. The author chooses “cleaned up” problems for his or her text. Teachers do the same thing when preparing for a lecture. Good math is messy! If you get really lost, scrap your work and start over on that problem.

Try It