Succeed in College: Read to Understand

Love it or hate it, you have to get familiar with academic reading in college. Most exams include questions about texts professors assign but never address in class. So learn to read to understand. The more active your reading, the more chances for increasing understanding. Since most college texts provide surveys filled with definitions, data, and theories, use a structured reading method involving forethought, performance, and review and reflection.

During the forethought phase, gather and prepare materials, and form a context for what you read before you read it. This adds pathways to prior knowledge and builds retention:

  • Spend 5-10 minutes on the chapter title, topic outlines, headings, charts, diagrams, and illustrations to create familiarity with content.
  • Read the chapter summary twice; then think of what you already know about the topic.
  • Ask what question the chapter is answering.
  • Ascertain how much energy to put into reading based on earlier study and knowledge.
  • Use the Internet if necessary to create another framework in which to put what you read.

Use the performance phase to actively read:

  • Focus attention by following the text with your index finger, a pen or pencil, and a note card with colored edges to keep you on the correct line.
  • Divide the chapter into parts; then use a timer and short breaks to question yourself about the material.
  • Read and then mark or highlight primary points and write notes in the margin.
  • Explain to yourself (aloud) what you understand; hearing yourself increases retention.
  • Use headings to formulate questions in the margins and to prep for exams; ask what the primary ideas are in each section.
  • Reread confusing sections and get help from learning centers and classmates if you need.

Give yourself a reflection phase to review and understand:

  • Review the day of your first read-through to increase retention, then each day until the exam.
  • Use chapter review cards, mapping, study guides, and test preps to organize thoughts.
  • Explain aloud what you’ve understood to others; teaching leads to understanding.
  • Continue building a context from what you know, and connect the text to your class notes. Write the text’s page numbers besides corresponding in-class notes.

Other types of college texts require different reading strategies. Problem-centered texts require that you read and work problems; selected readings that you use introductions and notes from class lectures; literature that you read after gaining a context for the work from prior knowledge or the Internet; research articles that you read abstracts before starting; and reference works that you preview structure, use tabs to mark key points, and note other textual facets.

Also, watch for two stumbling blocks. These are an inadequate college-level vocabulary and poor concentration. Electronic or paper vocabulary cards can help tackle the former, as can learning Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Build your concentration by reading your way through a chapter in smaller increments with more rigid demands on your environment and time.

Remember that your primary goal for reading is to understand, not simply memorize. You are building a structure upon which your future depends, so make it sturdy.

Adapted from Sellers, D., Dochen, C., & Hodges, R. (2014). Academic Transformation:

            The road to college success (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

One response to “Succeed in College: Read to Understand

  1. SO very important that we all READ to understand!! With this post, I would like to share the following article I published in regards to student success in college. See:

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