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Effective Reading Skills

Student reading a book

A Harvard study conducted in the 1970s quizzed 1500 freshmen on a 30-page history chapter they were given 20 minutes to read. While most did well on the detail questions, only 15 students could summarize the basic themes of the chapter. What did they do that the other students did not? These students read the chapter summary first.

Reading is one of the most important skills you will need to be successful in college. Consider the strategies offered through the quick links on this page and our ten tips to help you get the most out of your reading.

Top Ten Tips for Effective Reading

1. Pick a good spot and the right time
What you get out of your reading can have a lot to do with the setting in which you choose to read and the time of day. You want to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Have good light, reduce the distractions, and make sure you are mentally alert before you start.

2. Be realistic
Figure out how much reading you can do in one sitting for a particular reading assignment. Then you can estimate how long it will take you to read the assignment. And plan for some extra time, just in case.

3. Pre-read
Check out the text before starting on page 1. Look at the graphs, illustrations, headings, subheadings, summary, and questions at the end of a chapter. Knowing what you are going to learn gives you a purpose and will be more effective than just jumping in.

4. Read in sections
Don't just read from page one to the end (or however far you get). Break it up into manageable sections, where you can stop to think about what you are reading.

5. Read, then take notes
Resist the urge to underline or write the first time you read a sentence or a paragraph. When we take notes or underline on the first read-through, we can end up underlining before we really know what is most important. At the end of the section or page, pause and decide what is worth going back to review.

6. Don't focus only on definitions
It can be easy to read only for the definitions, but we also need to focus on the concepts and more abstract ideas.

7. Think
At the end of a section and then again at the end of the reading, THINK about why you read the material and what you learned from it. Consider summarizing key points on a note card, the last page of the chapter, or in your note book.

8. Make Connections
How does the reading connect to other class readings or in-class discussions? Does it have a connection to something you have already learned? Making associations between new learning and old gives a boost to your understanding and memory.

9. Question
To engage in the reading, think about questions you could ask in class about the reading or questions you think might be on a test.

10. Review
Our memory needs refreshing to make new learning accessible. Consider a five-minute review of a previous chapter before starting a new one. Or carry around your note cards with terms and definitions or chapter summaries and test yourself when you have a free moment. Periodic review of important material is much more effective than re-reading an entire chapter.