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How to Read for College: Time Management

January 23, 2011

Disclaimer: The best way to learn how to ride a horse is to ride a horse.  Riding Lessons cover what I have learned about college from being in college.  They are based entirely on personal experience.  I have not consulted sources of research or theory on secondary education methodology or pedagogy except as it has applied to my own past projects.  What works for me may not work for you.  The conclusions here, though about academia, are not academically rigorous or supportable.  However, that doesn’t mean they are invalid or unhelpful.  You’ll have to decide that.  As the Buddha said, be a light unto yourself.  Good luck.

Read this!

We all learned how to read in kindergarten, right?  Perhaps a little earlier for some or a little later for others.  Later we studied things like literary theory, how to present an argument, and research methods. Although, by the time we graduated from high school, we probably forgot most of them.  Then suddenly we found ourselves in college and realized we were going to have to read a lot of books and write a lot of papers.  And (gasp!) we weren’t going to have underpaid academic nannies to hold our hand anymore.  Now what?

It’s time to start over.  At the beginning.  We have to learn how to read.  Again.

The key differences between reading for high school and reading for college are not linguistic sophistication or complexity of content.  Big words are rarely worth the paper they are printed on (that being said, be prepared to learn and use a lot of them) and complexity is only a matter of perspective.  The social hierarchy of any human group is far more complex than any molecular formula, yet the lunch room seems far less daunting than the chemistry lab. I assure you, everyone has the brain power (if not the interest or motivation) to manage both just fine.  It’s merely a matter of application, so don’t let college reading assignments daunt you.

Successful college reading comes down to time management, retention, and comprehension.  The first is a matter of figuring out what and how to read.  The later involves simplification and summarization.  Rote memorization is rarely a successful method for content retention.  Rather, by far the best method for retaining content is to understand it – comprehension.  This involves discernment, being able to find “the point” and discover what facts or arguments feed into it.

Personally, I find a systems approach to knowledge to be the most helpful.  After all, that’s why we’re reading – to acquire knowledge, understanding, and, ultimately, wisdom.  Contrary to popular belief, these are not all the same thing.  However, to a systems thinker, they are all related.  In fact, everything is related.  From the Buddhist perspective, this seems obvious.  It’s emptiness, sunyata/sunnata, interdependence, co-being, etc.

However, systems thinking is a skill.  It can be cultivated, like any skill, and some people have more aptitude for it than others.  I’m good at systems thinking.  I’m not good playing the piano.  Partly this is because I’ve practiced one and not the other.  Also, I’m nearly tone deaf.  Being a systems thinker is like being a good card player, except in systems thinking stacking the deck is not only legal, but mandatory.  We’re not quite to that point yet, because before we can learn how to shuffle the cards, we have to figure out what cards are important, and which ones we have time to look at.

The first issue in college level reading is time management.  It is highly unlikely, especially at the graduate level, that you will always have time to thoroughly read every book and article assigned to you.  It is even less likely that you will want to.  Don’t downplay the effectiveness of interest and motivation in retention and comprehension of content.  If you simply don’t give a damn about an alternative view of meditation in sixth century China as presented by a monk-scholar from a long dead Buddhist lineage, it is highly unlikely that you’ll get much out of a sixty-five page treatise on the matter.  (And if you really don’t give a damn at all, maybe rethink that religious studies major.)

The first strategy for effective time management of reading assignments is choosing what to read.  Contrary to popular myth (promulgated largely by professors) you do not have to read everything that is assigned.  If it won’t contribute to your grade (and you’re not genuinely interested in it), do not read it!  In other words, if your professor assigns a hundred pages a week but only tests on the content of the lecture, don’t read the hundred pages.  Your time would be better spent taking and then studying copious in-class notes.  Talk to fellow students who have taken the class, or any class, with that professor before.  Be a Boy Scout – be prepared! Also be a skeptic, don’t take the professor’s word for it!  (Don’t arbitrarily reject that word either!)

Once you’ve decided you do actually need to or, better yet, want to read something, read it!  However, realize that’s a best case scenario.  There’s no guilt needed if the best case fails to appear, but don’t you dare use the lack thereof as an excuse to slack!  If you honestly realize you won’t have time to get through all six-hundred and thirteen pages of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Theory of the Judgment of Taste by next week, you have several options.  First, skim.  That strategy is covered below.  Second, find a summary.  Bourdieu, as a typical French sociologist and philosopher, is very dense, but his work has been admirably summarized by more concise authors.  Find one.  This will be true for practically any preeminent scholar in any field whose published work is more than a decade or two old.  The originator of an idea or theory, while an invaluable source, isn’t always the best at explaining it.

If all else fails, resort to CliffsNotes, SparkNotes, encyclopedia entries, dummies’ guides, Wikipedia, or internet searches.  Book reviews in magazines and journals can also be helpful.  Don’t waste too much effort on this.  If you don’t find an alternative reading quickly, your remaining time is best spent on reading as much as you can of the original.  Even if you don’t finish it, your professor will appreciate the attempt more than just giving up because looking at the paper brick sitting on your desk made your stomach curl.

[A note about Wikipedia – it’s a good starting place, but not a good ending place.  Use the citations found within the Wikipedia entry itself (those little hyperlinked numbers that appear in the text and are listed at the bottom of the article) and follow them to more reliable source material.  Most teachers will downgrade (and possibly ridicule) you if you cite Wikipedia in a final project.  Think about it.  Not even Wikipedia cites Wikipedia.]

The second strategy is choosing how to read.  Literacy is the least of skills when it comes to reading for time efficiency, retention, and comprehension.  Spending a lot of time doesn’t always ensure you’re using it wisely.  Despite what you might hope, pulling an all-nighter, really does not improve your odds of either remembering or understanding content.  But sometimes spending less time can actually increase the amount of reading accomplished, knowledge retained, and understanding achieved.

Skimming is the most basic skill and can be approached two ways, by either skipping or scanning.  You do not have to read every single last word of an assigned text to benefit from what it says.  Skipping is the easier of the two methods.  You choose sections of the text to read, such as the introduction and conclusion of the article or book or of each chapter or section, first sentence of every paragraph of the body text, breakout boxes and quotes or skip those and read the rest, etc.

What you pick to read depends on how the book or article is formatted.  Some authors are very good at breaking things up with headings, sections, subsections, chapters, etc.  Others just ramble on indiscriminately.  Remember, there are no hard and fast rules.  If you choose to read the first sentence of every paragraph (good for ramblers), but the first sentence is meaningless or leads inevitably into the second, read that as well.  Often there will be one or two paragraphs within the body of any text that contain the critical point the author is trying to make and should be read in their entirety.  If all else fails, always read at least the introduction and conclusion in full.  Sometimes, you can get the gist by reading half or even a quarter of the text.  But if you have the time, read it all!

Scanning is a more advanced form of skimming.  It takes more practice than skipping, but given practice, it is far more useful.  Thanks to the internet, most people are now more familiar with scanning.  It involves brushing your eyes across the text to pull out relevant sections by looking for keywords or phrases.  Sometimes it is erroneously (in my opinion) termed speed reading, but that still implies a full reading, which is not what scanning entails.

Important words and phrases include:

  • ‘I argue/conclude/show that such and such is the case.’   This often indicates either a thesis or main premise in support of the thesis.
  • Hierarchical indicators such as ‘firstly, secondly, finally, etc.’
  • Words that establish facts or opinions such as ‘reject, uphold, reveal, criticize, etc.’  They tell you what the author or whomever they are referencing is arguing.
  • Indicator words such as ‘reveals, shows, yields, asserts, ascribes, demonstrates, etc.’  These words usually indicate the meaning of important facts.

Things that can often be skipped:

  • What, where, when, and who (but not why!). Once you’ve figured out the main subject, say Marilyn Monroe, listing every director of every film she did and every location she ever worked isn’t really that important.  Eventually the author will get to the point: such as the fact that Marilyn only worked with a small group of directors means she was picky or difficult to work with.    (This is a fictitious example.)
  • Long quotes.  If the author is writing about another author, usually just before or after the quoted text, they will summarize it and explain what it means.  You can go back and read the full quote if you don’t understand or agree with the summarization and/or analysis.
  • Lists, especially with foreign names and lots of dates.  We don’t need to know everywhere that ever served as a capital city in China to understand that there were once multiple capital cities for multiple kingdoms.  However, it is sometimes useful to note for future reference where this listed information can be found.

Basically, facts are important because of what they mean, not what they are.  (Of course, if you can show a fact is other than what it was thought to be, the meaning changes.)  What is usually important about any assigned reading is the author’s take on the subject, their point or interpretation or argument.  For example, it’s a fact that the longer I sit in from of my computer, the more stiff and achy I am when I get up.  I could interpret this to mean that treatises on early Chinese meditation masters cause lactic acid buildup in the muscles.  I could go on to list in support of my argument all forty-six treatises in excruciating detail in order to demonstrate they were all, in fact, about sixth century Chinese monks.  You don’t have to read all that to understand the premise or form your own opinion as to why my muscles hurt (damn you Stairmaster!).

When you skim, the meaning is what you are searching for.  If you don’t find it, you have likely missed something.  Of course, it is also possible that the author is simply a poor writer, has a flawed argument, or is being intentionally abstruse.  It happens, so don’t knock yourself about to hard if you can’t find the point.  There may not be one.  Figuring out what is important or meaningful in an article or book is also a function of comprehending what the book is about.  If we can’t determine the point, it’s hard to determine what is or is not relevant to support or reject the point.

Discovering, understanding, and remembering the meaning of any assigned reading will be the purpose of my next Riding Lesson.  For now, ask yourself, what was the point of this article?  Think about it.  (The answer is below.)  Good luck!


Thesis: Successful college-level reading is a function of time management, retention, and comprehension.

Main Points: Time management involves knowing what to read and how to read it.  Accept that if your time is limited you may not have to or be able to read everything.  Choosing what to read involves understanding what is graded and determining if an easier source is available.  Knowing how to read involves skimming using methods such as skipping and scanning.  Meaning is more important than facts, so always prioritize discovering the point and why the author thinks that over memorizing raw data.


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