Efficient and Effective Reading
Good research notes are a result of active and critical reading. Active readers think about what they read and how they can use their reading in their essays. Critical readers consider implications, biases, and assumptions and critically question the reading.
Determine a clear purpose before you read and maintain that purpose while you read to avoid collecting too many unnecessary notes. The purpose of your reading is guided by your thesis, research questions, and essay outline, so it is helpful to review these prior to reading a source.
Start by skimming each source. Look at the title, the abstract, the introduction, and conclusion; this helps you to understand the main argument (or thesis) in each source.
Plan your reading approach: you can read key texts first, read general before specific works, read more recent texts before older ones, or read texts grouped by a particular argument.
Before you begin to read, you should determine the reason you are reading the source. Skimming will help you to get the gist of a reading without noting all its supporting details.
Follow these four steps to read for general knowledge:
- Skim the introductory paragraph(s) to establish the author’s thesis or main argument.
- Read the first sentence or two of each paragraph to give you the main idea of the paragraph. Together, these should show the development of the thesis.
- Read the concluding sentence of each paragraph.
- Take notes (3 to 4 sentences) about the essence of the article and what ideas are most relevant to your essay.
Detailed reading is important when the source contains a central argument related to your topic or the author is an outstanding scholar in the field. Detailed reading may occupy a good deal of your research time. Learn more about reading argumentative texts and empirical articles.
- Check for patterns of argument and organizational development. Pay particular attention to transitional words and phrases, for they can supply a context for the sentence or paragraph to come.
- A paragraph should contain one main idea and the topic sentence will help you to determine the main idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence is often the first sentence of the paragraph.
- Break down the sentences if the sentences are extremely complex. Read aloud through difficult passages, and concentrate on key phrases.
- Use a dictionary or a discipline-specific glossary for terms. Keep a list of important new terms and their meanings.
To read critically, you must carefully consider the argument, context, author, and author's perspective, while at the same time you must be aware of your own perspective and bias.
- Try to judge arguments on their merits: be aware of how your own bias may affect your judgment.
- Where a text comes from and who it is written for can affect meaning. Think how the historical and cultural context influences the reading.
- What does the author hope to achieve (to convince the reader, arouse sympathy, inspire indignation)? You may see an author emphasize certain points but ignore others in an effort to achieve his or her purpose.
- Do not accept authorities unquestioningly. Authorities do not always agree; the word of one is not indisputable.
- Watch for generalizations. Does the author draw conclusions on the basis of similarities between things that are not similar?
- Does the author think in extremes, ignoring possibilities in between? Anything neatly divided into polar opposites should be suspect.
- Watch for faulty reasoning. Does the author avoid a question, talking around it by tackling other issues? Does the author avoid answering the question?