I’m going to look at reading skills, but don’t worry I’m not planning to teach you how to read – you’re doing well reading my blog, so I suspect you already have good basic literacy skills. What I’m talking about are the skills that will help you to manage the reading workload faced by students at college and university, which can be overwhelming sometimes.
Many students studying on the professional courses at my Institution feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading they are required to do; feeling that they need to read absolutely everything available to them. Last year I had a struggling student. When discussing what was happening, it transpired that she was trying to read everything in detail and where there were links embedded in the source material, she was trying to read all the links too. One example of this was a CIPD Factsheet (CIPD is the professional body in the UK for HR professionals). I had provided the factsheet as some of the recommended reading for one of my units. When I looked at the factsheet it had 13 separate links embedded in it. My student was trying to read each of these links – my instinct was that I would have read about 3 of the sources as additional reading. The factsheet itself was maybe about 6 pages long when printed. There’s no need to read everything; students need to develop the ability to identify the most appropriate material to read. My intention for this section of the Critical Practice course is to give you some tips and techniques so you can develop better reading skills and be a more confident researcher.
You can read the previous sections of the course below, but the previous section can be accessed here.
The amount of information available, particularly at the tap of a screen or the click of a mouse is increasing exponentially, and it would be impossible to keep up-to-date and constantly read everything, so its really important for us all to manage our time and have good digital literacy skills. I’m hoping the following tips and approaches will help.
Make sure the material you read is up-to-date
There are some basic questions to think about when looking at resources. I’ll address the quality of materials in my next post in this series but you do want to ensure you are using good quality sources.
It is also important that you consider how up-to-date your sources are. There is no point looking at the impact of Covid on the hospitality sector (hotels, restaurants etc) and reading something published in 2015. Generally, my rule of thumb would be to try to use as many sources as possible that are less than 5 years old. Of course, there will be some seminal pieces that will be older, so think about why you want to use the source and what it contributes to your work.
Decide what you want to find out
Have a clear idea in your head (or better, write it down) of the themes or key words you’re looking for and keep them to the fore as you search. It will allow you to be more discerning as you search and read. Use your key words when using the scanning and skimming techniques I’m going to outline below.
Be careful not to overwhelm yourself with information
If you read too much you could be overwhelmed with information. From my own experience as a student if you read too much, it can become difficult to formulate your own ideas as they get lost in all the other information. When I was studying, my own informal rule was to read 4 items at a time. Read the work then write up my notes, trying to answer the question(s) posed. That would allow me to see where the gaps were in my knowledge or where I needed more information. I could then be more focused when carrying out additional research, looking for more information.
Scanning involves looking over written text to find key words, numbers, statistics etc so you wouldn’t read the full article, book etc in detail. You’re just looking over the work to find the key words etc.
Using scanning (and skimming which we’ll look at next) allows you to quickly go through work to determine what is likely to be relevant so you can focus on reading more worthwhile texts, making better use of your time.
There are a range of techniques that are all classified as skimming. But collectively these allow you to quickly review materials to see if they are going to be relevant for you. Carry out the steps indicated below – but you only need to move from one step to the next if you identify the key words etc you are looking for, otherwise you’re finished with that text and can move on to the next one.
Using Indexes/Contents Pages
You will have an idea of what you’re looking for – you don’t want to read a whole history book if you only want to know about one particular event. You would go through the List of Contents or the Index to see if the events (or the year) are listed. I’d do the same with the contents section of a book.
I usually then put bookmarks at the relevant pages so I can examine them in detail later. Sometimes I’d scan a section to look for the key words. Other times, I’d want to use additional skimming techniques which are outlined below. Using these approaches I can get through a full book in 30 minutes.
Chapters and paragraphs
At the beginning of a chapter, when you’re not sure if its relevant, read the first paragraph (the introduction to the chapter) as it will let you know what’s going to be in the chapter – so if your event or the appropriate time period hasn’t been mentioned, you can probably skip the chapter. I’d read the final paragraph/conclusion to the chapter, just to be sure as it should tell you what’s been discussed in the chapter.
If you read a chapter introduction and think it might be relevant, you’re not yet at the stage of reading it. Rather than reading a full chapter, you want to find the sections within the chapter that you might need to read. Read the first few lines or the first sentence of a paragraph to see where the focus is in the chapter – so rather than reading full paragraphs, you’re simply skimming the first and last few lines of each paragraph you might end up with a few pages to read (which you can mark and return to read after skimming the rest of the book/article etc). This should help you manage your reading workload so you don’t end up overloaded and will be able to relax and be more focused on your actual reading.
One final skimming technique that might be helpful, particularly if you’re reading academic journals, is to read the Abstract of the article (the bit at the beginning before you start reading the article. Don’t even look at the article until you have reviewed the abstract/executive summary as it should highlight the key points in the article itself. So you should know from reading the abstract, whether or not the article is relevant.
So to pull everything together, improve your reading technique and focus by
- Using relevant and up-to-date information
- Identify and be clear about your search terms and key words
- Don’t overload yourself with reading
- First and Last lines of paragraphs
- Read Abstracts/Executive Summaries
Hopefully my tips will help you better focus when reading; giving you some coping strategies. I’d love to hear how you get on or if you have any additional tips or comments you can share with other students, please make use of the comments section.
In my next post in the series, I’ll be exploring the different sources of information we can use for research to ensure you can be a critical thinker, we’ll consider some of the factors that help us decide if a source is reliable and trustworthy.
You can access all the sections for the course below
- Critical Practice
- Defining Critical Thinking and Critical Writing
- Creating Greater Impact with Evidence-based Practice
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