expand search

Academic Skills

two student studying together, sitting against each other back on a university bench

Academic Skills

Read Critically and Efficiently


Expectations for Post-Secondary Reading

Academic reading is almost always difficult reading. It is usually densely packed with ideas and implications that need to be thought out and considered. The result is that your reading will take time – lots of it.

It will also require that you read actively and critically. Critical reading involves breaking the argument down into its parts to see how well each part works and how parts of the argument work together. You likely have good reading skills to understand a text, but you need to move beyond comprehension to also analyze what a text does and how it does it.

One of the best ways to approach university reading is to see it as a three-part experience: before, during, and after. And, what you do before and after you begin a reading is as important to your comprehension of it as what you do while you read.

Efficient Reading is Active Reading

Many students find their reading in university to take more time than they expect, but they quickly learn that reading shortcuts (speed-reading techniques and quick skim methods) do not facilitate active or critical reading. Instead, they often read the text all over again.

One reason that reading can take so long is that students approach their reading without a plan, so they often lose focus and need to read a page more than once. Other students believe they must take notes so detailed they come close to re-writing the text. Neither of these approaches is effective or efficient.

Students who believe they should read for two, three, or four hours straight may also find reading to be difficult, particularly as they grow weary of small text and big words. And still other students who believe they can read while completing other tasks quickly find that multi-tasking is not the most efficient strategy for completing course readings.

Efficient reading is purposeful ....

Part I: Preview Before You Read

Critical reading is far easier if you have a sense of the purpose and main point of a text before you begin reading it in depth. Having this in your mind can help you to follow the author’s key message and to separate essential ideas from supporting details. One way to develop a sense of the purpose of the source is to preview before you read.

  • Consider its form; is it a textbook chapter, an empirical article, or an argumentative article?
  • Read and understand the title.
  • Examine the table of contents and/or section headings.
  • Read the abstract, as well as the introductory and concluding sections.
  • Skim through the text looking for main ideas; read topic sentences, transitional sections, bolded elements, captions, boxes.
  • Read text summary and summary questions (if they are provided in your text).
  • Determine the argument or the significant findings presented in the article or book.

By the end of your preview, you should be able to explain and write down:

  1. The type of text and its purpose
  2. The main topic or question that the text will address
  3. The author’s main argument or findings (for empirical and argumentative works)
  4. The structure of the text or the organization of ideas

Part II: As You Read

Once you have previewed a text, you can begin reading it in detail, confident in the knowledge that you know where the text is going.

To read critically, you must read actively. Ask questions as you read about the key message or argument, the main findings, the evidence used to support the key message, or applications and limitations of the findings.

It is important to take good notes; they reinforce your learning, provide you a resource for reference in lab and seminar, and support you in preparation for exams.

Tips for Effective Notetaking During Reading

  • Before you begin taking detailed notes, write down the topic or question the text focuses on and the author’s thesis or main point.
  • Read a text in small chunks, the length of which will depend on the length of the text. Take notes after you read a paragraph, section, or chapter. This will ensure that you write down only the most important information.
  • Use point form. Avoid recopying the text.
  • After you complete your reading, make a list of the 3-5 most important points.

Part III: Review and Reflect After Your Read

Take some time after completing a reading to review your notes and reflect on them. If there are review questions, answer them. If there are key terms listed at the end of a chapter, define them.  You can even write them directly onto flashcards to aid in exam preparation. If review exercises are not provided, make your own. What 3-5 questions would you ask about the reading? What terms do you think are most important? What questions will you ask or what points will you make about the reading during class?

See specific strategies, questions, and notetaking templates for three common texts assigned in university:

  1. Argumentative texts: Articles, Books, and Book Chapters in Humanities and Social Sciences
  2. Empirical articles: Scientific Reports
  3. Textbooks