Advertising
Advertising

Advice for Students: How to Read Like a Scholar

Advice for Students: How to Read Like a Scholar
How to Read Like a Scholar

    Gideon at Scholastici.us had some advice for students recently, saying that when it comes to scholarly reading, there really is no substitute for hard work, for actually sitting down and reading.

    Most the time in school what you need to do is very simple:

    Sit down with the book, a pen and paper, and perhaps a computer… And from that point, you read. That’s it. You go through and read the book, you underline important points and passages, pay special attention to introductions and conclusions, be sure to note special terminology, names and dates and that’s it. Maybe afterward take notes on the text.

    There is a time for technology and clever tricks. There is also a time for elbow grease.

    This is good advice, and yet it’s incomplete. Reading as an academic exercise involves not just gleaning the content form a book or essay but engaging with it. We read not just to learn some new set of facts but also to learn how facts are put together to form an argument, to learn what kinds of arguments are acceptable in our chosen disciplines, and to prompt us towards further research. Reading of this sort raises as many questions as it answers, or more.

    While reading, students should keep the following questions in mind:

    Advertising

    • What is the author trying to say? This seems obvious, but it seems to be a stumbling block for many students. I’m convinced that the failure to ask this simple question is what leads students to avoid reading, to feel that reading is a chore or, worse, busy-work. Remember, authors — academic or otherwise — aren’t in the business of writing just to bore students; there’s something important they want to communicate. Granted, not all writing communicates well, but regardless of the writer’s skill, if a professor assigned a reading, it’s because there’s something there worth knowing about.
    • How does the author say what they’re trying to say? What evidence do they use? What style of argument are they making? How are they positioning themselves? You’d be surprised how many people read an essay about, say, infanticide (the killing of newborn children) and assume the author is advocating this practice instead of simply describing it. These readers totally misread the author’s position.
    • Why is the author’s point important? If you can figure out why the author felt he or she needed to write the article or book in your hands, you’re a good way towards figuring out what they’re trying to say. What contribution does the work make to the author’s discipline, to our understanding of society or the world? What problems are they trying to solve?
    • Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why? Just because something’s in print doesn’t make it right. As a student, it is essential that you read critically, with an eye towards inconsistencies in an author’s argument or evidence. Are there other explanations for the data they present? Is the author’s interpretation colored by his or her religion, professional background, political orientation, or social position? Note: far too many students seem to think that criticizing style is a good substitute for critiquing substance. It’s not. A lot of academic writing is stilted, difficult (sometimes deliberately so), or just plain bad; this does not mean that the ideas are not good.
    • How does this work connect with other works? What’s new about it (or, if it’s an older work, what was new when it was published)? What disciplinary debates is the author engaging? How does this work build on, or refute, earlier works by other authors? How does it fit with the author’s other work? What other work is the one you’re reading like?
    • What is the social context of the work? Always consider the historical moment in which a work was created. What kind of person wrote it, and for what kind of audience? What historical events shaped the author’s perceptions and ideas? How was their world different from yours, and how was it similar?

    These questions should be on your mind even if you can’t read the whole book. It’s a sad fact of college life that not everything that is assigned can be given the same level of attention. In grad school, for instance, I was regularly charged with reading three (or more) hefty books a week, plus supporting essays and commentaries — while carrying out my own research at the same time. This is not humanly possible. You have to learn to prioritize reading, and to approach it systematically to make sure you get as much as possible out of whatever amount of reading you can manage.

    Here’s how you do it:

    Advertising

    1. Skim the book. Examine the table of contents to get a feeling for the structure and main points of the book. Flip through the chapters, skimming the first few paragraphs of each, and then the section headings. Check the index for any topics you feel are especially important. Then, if you have time;
    2. Read the Introduction and conclusion. Most of the author’s theoretical position will be laid out in the introduction, along with at least a summary of the chapters and sections within. The conclusion revisits much of these points, and usually gives a good overview of the data or other evidence. Sometimes the conclusion is not marked as such; in this case, read the last chapter. Then, if you have time;
    3. Dip in. Read the chapters that seem most relevant or interesting. Get a sense for what the author is trying to accomplish. Flip through the rest of the book and look more closely at anything that catches your eye. Then, if you have time;
    4. Finish the book. Read the whole thing. If you know you’ll have time, skip 1 – 3 and just read, cover to cover.

    Obviously it’s best to read the whole book; you’ll miss a lot reading anything less. But given the choice between not reading at all and skimming to at least get a taste of what you’re missing, I say, go for skimming. And try to keep yourself better organized in the future so that you don’t shortchange your entire education.

    More by this author

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion

    Trending in Featured

    1 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 2 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 3 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 4 How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life 5 What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

    Advertising

    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

    Advertising

    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

    Advertising

    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

    Advertising

    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

    Read Next