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Back to School: Keep an Academic Reading Journal

Back to School: Keep an Academic Reading Journal

Keep an Academic Reading Journal

    Aside from partying, the thing you’re probably going to do most in college is read. Assuming you’re at all serious about your education, you’ll read so much that words will come out your ears. Unfortunately, much of what you read will also go pouring out your ears, or so it will seem looking back.

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    One of the best habits you can develop in college — or even in high school, if you have the discipline — is to keep an academic reading journal. This is more or less what it sounds like: a journal recording everything you read, with an added layer of academic analysis. The idea is, you record what you read, key ideas and quotes from the text, and your own reflections on the work, allowing you to fairly accurately recreate your initial reading at a later date, pershaps a much later date.

    Why do this? There are several reasons. First, because if you’re smart, you’ll use material from one class as source material for research papers in later classes, and it’s better to have that material at hand rather than having to re-read the book. Second, because you will often come across the same material, or material bythe same author, later in your education, and can go back and review your initial impressions. And third, because while much of what you’re being asked to read now mightnot seem fairly relevant, you’ll be surprised, 10, 20, or more years down the line what you find yourself wishing you could remember of some book or article you read as a sophomore.

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    Creating the Academic Reading Journal

    An academic reading journal doesn’t  have to be anything fancy — in theory, a composition book or notepad will suffice, provided it’s durable enough to last many years. Even better, a hardbound diary or Moleskine-style journal will give you plenty of space in a durable format. If you’re technologically inclined, a personal wiki, word processor file, or even database can be used on your PC. When I was doing my dissertation research (which requires you to read literally everything in your research area) I kept a reading journal in an Access database, synced to a database program on my Palm PDA. The point is, you’ll have to figure out the medium that’s most comfortable for you, comfortable enough that you’ll use it consistently.

    There is no standard for what an academic reading journal entry should look like, but I recommend capturing the following pieces of information:

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    • A full bibliographic citation. Use whatever style is prevalent in your field, or whatever you know best: MLA, APA, or anything else. It doesn’t matter, so long as you make sure to get all the pieces of  information you’ll need to produce a bibliography in any style necessary.
    • A short synopsis of the book or article. This can be copied from the back cover text or abstract, or just sketched out in your own words.
    • Quotes from your reading. Copy out any quotes you would otherwise highlightor underline — anything you think captures some essential point in the text. You don’t have to do this as you read, if you prefer to read with a highlighter or underliner — copy them out when you’re done, in that case. Make sure you get the page number(s).
    • A personal response to your reading. 200 or so words capturing your impression of what you’ve read. Why is it important (or not important)? Whatis the author trying to say? Who was influenced by it, or influenced it?Have a look at my post How to Read Like a Scholar for more advice on academic reading.
    • Questions raised by the text. Challenge your reading material! Think of a set of questionsthe material leaves unanswered, or that undermine the conclusions reached. These questions might eventually form the basis of a research project or larger critique.
    • Any other notes, thoughts, arguments, or feelings about what you’ve read.

    When I started keeping a reading journal using a Moleskine a couple years ago, Iprinted out a template that I kept in the back pocket to remind me of what I should include in my entries.

    One last thing

    While non-fiction is my bread-and-butter, and thus this post might have seemed to lean more towards academic material, don’t hesitate to include fiction and poetry among the books in your reading journal. The truths in fiction are often — maybe even usually — more true than the truths in non-fiction. Shakespeare’s truths trump Einstein’s over and over — after all, we’ve revised our understanding of relativity, but Hamlet will forevermore have been poisoned and killed in the Great Hall at Elsinore.

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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

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    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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