It is vital for students to come to class well prepared so that
they can participate fully in class discussions. Often, preparation
for class involves ‘reading up’ prescribed texts. But
many students often are unable to find the time to properly digest
the readings, at least not in time for class. An obvious solution
is quite simply to make more time for careful and reflective reading,
setting aside for example a specific time in the day or a day in
the week for each module. If this is just not possible in practice,
then there also are ways of improving reading techniques, at least
for the purposes of class preparation.
Before you start reading
- Look at the text in front of you.
- Take note of its length to mentally prepare yourself for
how much work and time will be involved in studying the text.
- Scan the introduction for a statement of the central argument/‘thesis’
and a ‘roadmap’ that gives the reader a sense
of the direction and shape of the arguments to come. Then,
look at the conclusion where you might find a retracing of
steps, a culmination of the different strands of argument,
or a restatement of the thesis.
- See if the text is sectioned: subheadings may help you
work out the shape of the author’s argument.
- Look out for other clear ‘signposts’ in the
text (e.g. keywords in the margins, sentences/phrases/words
in bold print, paragraphs boxed up to indicate their importance/explanatory
- Analyse the title of the text and, where applicable, the
title of the book/journal from which the text is taken. From
these titles, guess what sorts of arguments will be made,
what types of content will be discussed, and what the writing
style might be.
- Who is the author? Gather relevant information (e.g. nationality,
institutional affiliation, disciplinary background, ideological
position, other publications, the year in which he or she
published the text). Based on this information and any knowledge
that you might already have, what can you tell about the author?
What is the author likely to say? How is the author likely
to say it?
Next, consolidate your guesses and quickly note what you expect
to find in the text.
- Often, your lecturer/tutor will provide you with some brief
background to the text and perhaps some guiding questions (c.f.
to help you focus on the main ideas or the ideas that are relevant
to the module. Do not ignore this help. Whether or not your tutor
has provided you with this information, you should ask yourself
the question, “Why has the tutor included this reading in
this module?” Try to answer this question before you actually
read the text (the title of the module should be helpful in this
regard), but go on asking yourself the question even as you read
Reading the text
Find a quiet, comfortable place to concentrate on your reading
without being distracted. Focus on the text: try to get ‘into’
it. Have a sense of how much time you have to read the text
but try not to allow this to stress you out. As far as possible,
try to enjoy the text.
- Always make notes while you read in order to document:
- The thesis and how the author develops this thesis through
the logical construction of arguments and the examples offered
in support of them. Look out for counter-arguments and how
the author deals with them. Get into the habit of writing
down a topic sentence for every paragraph that you read, and
then revisit this list of sentences as a summary of the overall
- How the main ideas, arguments and examples relate to what
you already know from previous readings and classes, or from
other modules that you have read.
- How you reacted to the text and how you processed the information.
- Those ideas, arguments, and examples that do not seem to
make sense to you, or those references that are not meaningful
to you because you do not have the necessary background knowledge.
You can raise these points during class discussion.
Differentiate these four types of notes (e.g. if you are scribbling
notes in the margins, you may want to consider using a system
‘Forget’ that this is a piece of work that you
have to do for class. Elevate the experience. For instance,
think of reading as a means of expanding your knowledge base
so that you can converse intelligently with anyone that you
meet now and in the future. Or think of reading as a means of
connecting to a community of scholars and thinkers who have,
throughout these centuries, thirsted for knowledge of the kind
that is now so readily available to you. Although such tactics
may sound very grand and perhaps even silly, they can help to
overcome any sense of tedium or routine that would get in the
way of achieving an appropriately high level of intellectual
engagement in your reading.
After reading the text
Look through your notes carefully. ‘Collapse’
the text by listing the topic sentences that you have identified
or formulated in the margins. You may want to organise these
topic sentences and how they relate structurally using a cluster
diagram or a mind map. Now, you will have both a summary of
the text and an overall structure of the argument—excellent
not only for class discussion, but also for examination revision.
Imagine that you will have to teach this text to junior college
students. Ask yourself, “Which main ideas, arguments,
or examples in the reading would I highlight and how would I
articulate and explain them to my students?” You might
be surprised at how effective this simple device can be.
If you have time, quickly re-read the text with the overall
structure of argument in mind to possibly yield new and unexpected
insights that can really lift the quality of your class participation.
I developed the above method when I was an undergraduate and it
worked well for me when I was faced with long reading lists and
relentless essay deadlines throughout the year. The method may seem
at first to be time-consuming. But once it becomes a habit, you
will probably find that it actually cuts down on the time that is
often spent re-reading paragraphs or sentences in a passive and
aimless fashion. I hope you will give it a go, and modify it according
to your own needs and circumstances.