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Break Out of the Passive Reading Habit and Get Active!
It may sound silly, but there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to read. This is especially true for students, who are expected to summarize, analyze, and critique the readings assigned to them by their professors. The task can be particularly daunting for students working on a term paper, as they must read a large amount of material and then integrate it into the ongoing discourse that is their research paper.
So which forms of reading are “correct,” and which are “wrong”? While reading a book or article, you want to read actively as opposed to passively. When you read passively, you only receive information; while you are reading, you are not digesting the information and forming an opinion. Of course, this isn’t very good at critical thinking, a practice you should always strive for.
In contrast, active reading is a more interactive process. Active readers are participants in the reading process. As they pour into the text, they interact with it; they question it, challenge it, gather evidence and present counter-evidence, discuss it even. Active reading helps you understand and remember what you read, and ultimately makes for a better paper.
This explanation may not be clear. However, active reading is not just an abstract theoretical concept – there are concrete steps you can take to become a more active reader!
First, don’t approach a text with the assumption that you have to read it straight through, cover to cover. Before you begin, scan the title, abstract, table of contents and index. This provides a framework for the remaining readings. As you continue through the text itself, don’t be afraid to skip from chapter to chapter or section to section. If you’re reading a book, check the index to see when your topic is mentioned. For research reports, try to read the conclusion before the results; it will give you an overview of the author’s findings and help you understand the details as presented in the results section. If a statement or topic confuses you, don’t be afraid to step back and re-read a paragraph or even an entire chapter, if necessary. After all, if you don’t understand a topic, it’s very difficult to write coherently about it!
Active reading also involves forming an opinion about what you read. As you take in the text, pay attention to your emotional reactions to it. Does it make you angry? Angry? Can’t believe it? Why? Does the author make any claims that you find questionable? What have you read so far that supports or contradicts the author’s arguments? Does the author offer reliable evidence for his statements, or is he simply presenting his opinions or making speculations? Mark these questions and your impressions as you go.
Another way to break passive reading habits is to use margins. This is easy if you are reading a photocopy or printout of an article. Alternatively, if you are reading a text, copy any sections you plan to use in your paper so you can mark them without damaging library property! This will save you a ton of time, so it’s worth the extra cost. You can also save documents to your computer as Word files (instead of printing hard copies) and “mark” them using Word’s highlighting function. It saves money and paper!
Marking the margins will give you pause to consider what you’ve read. It also draws your attention to important passages and marks them for future use. You can write whatever comes to your mind. Underline or highlight important facts, statements, or results in the text. Use arrows to connect related sections to each other and point out relationships. Write down any questions you may have. Is there something you don’t understand? A new path you want to pursue? A topic you need to explore more? Take note of this! Highlight any inconsistencies in the text with points of discussion or debate. Gather evidence that supports or contradicts your view. Don’t get lost in statements you don’t understand or can’t explain – these are the ones you need to pay attention to.
Consider not only the text in front of you, but the context in which it was written. Check the time period in which the source was written. Your analysis should also include the perspective of the author’s writing – is he a psychologist or a biologist? How about a feminist, or maybe a Marxist? How does the context influence the author’s conclusions? Keep these questions in mind as you read, and note any impressions you get as you read.
After you finish a chapter or article, write a short summary. Not only will this help you understand what you just read, but it will provide a helpful guide for later, when you’re writing your paper and need to sort through hundreds of pages of material. Besides, if you can’t write a paragraph or two quickly, it’s a sign that you need to go back and re-read the source.
Don’t wait until you are assigned a paper to try these suggestions. The next time you have to do any reading for class, practice some active reading strategies. You will increase your understanding of the material and your grades!
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