Number. 28 © CDTL 2003
Reading Up for Class
Assistant Professor Kenneth Paul A.S-S. Tan
University Scholars Programme/Department of Political Science

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

  1. 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 function).
    • 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?

  2. Next, consolidate your guesses and quickly note what you expect to find in the text.

  3. 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 it.

Reading the text

  1. 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.

  2. 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 argument.
    • 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.

  3. Differentiate these four types of notes (e.g. if you are scribbling notes in the margins, you may want to consider using a system of colour-coding).

  4. ‘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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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