Strategies for Active Reading

Two women reading. One is standing and leaning against a wall; the other is sitting on the ground, also leaning against the wall.

Read Thoroughly and in a Distraction-Free Environment

You have already learned that college requires active reading, not passive reading. But it is hard to keep our minds focused on a task all the time. Further, it is difficult to get away from the excitement and “noise” of a college life. That is why it is a good idea to read multiple times, especially items such as prompts, texts for analysis, materials for exams, etc. Reading multiple times will enhance your ability to cognitively process the material. If you can do your reading in a distraction-free environment, that will also increase your ability to make sense of the material and to commit it to memory.

Annotate Your Texts

You’ve probably thought or heard someone say that you shouldn’t write in your books because then you can sell them back for more, but if you are concerned about money, think of the other side of this example: If you aren’t interacting with the book you purchased, you aren’t getting the money out of it that you originally paid. Readings in college are meant to marked up. You cannot make the most of your reading experiences if you do not synthesize complex parts, write questions that arise, or note connections. And don’t simply highlight parts you find interesting. Highlighting certainly isn’t a bad strategy, but it doesn’t advance active reading in and of itself. Think of your reading experience as you would a conversation with someone, especially someone you might not know well. If all that happens is the other person talks to you while you sit passively, you may well get some information, but you would be unable to get clarification, ask questions, or think about larger context, just for starters. Conversation works best when multiple people are active participants. Think of reading similarly.

Use Your Personal Knowledge to Your Advantage

Though college involves a lot of reading on subjects or topics that are new to you, your prior knowledge can still help. Try to connect readings to what you already know, even if that isn’t a lot. For example, you might be reading for your Biology class and remember a relative’s heart attack. What you learned as your family member went through the treatment could help you contextualize the reading. Perhaps you don’t know the word “mnemonic,” but it means something that assists with memory. One trick to helping you retain knowledge during reading is to apply the information you read to what you already know about a topic.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

You probably learned long ago that you can’t read the 200-page text that is the basis for your book report the day before the paper is due; however, you might not have thought much about shorter readings. Remember, reading in college is more difficult than it was in high school, so even that 20-page chapter might be more work than it sounds like. Since you will be annotating and thinking critically about the material, it might be a good idea to stop once in a while or break up even shorter pieces. Of course, you should probably be able to read a six-page article in one sitting, but you might want to go back at a later time to reread it. You know your reading and thinking capacities better than anyone else, but don’t push ahead if you find yourself not reading critically or not retaining information. This is why it is important to get to reading assignments early and leave time to come back to them if you need to do so.

The Reading-Process Loop

On the next page are strategies for a reading process loop that will help you better think about and understand what you are reading. Don’t forget, reading is a recursive act, which means you can move back and forth through different steps as you work. Keep reading and thinking about what you have read until you feel comfortable with the material.


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