How NOT to read for college classes

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homeworkIf you think that excellent students read everything they are assigned for their college classes, think again. The best students know what material to read thoroughly, what material to skim, and what material to skip altogether. That saves them a lot of time and a lot of mental effort, since they aren’t focusing their attention and studying on materials that won’t be on the test.

Think about readings from the prof’s perspective. In general, it costs a professor very little to assign you a given reading. As they assemble their syllabi, it takes them all of thirty seconds to type “Read War and Peace, by Tolstoy, for the March 2nd class.” Doing the reading, however, will take you days! Assigning it is easy for them, so they err on the side of thoroughness. You, on the other hand, now have to do hours of work that may contribute almost nothing to your GPA. So don’t waste your time and lose your focus by blindly reading everything assigned.

Principal: Read for class like you read a magazine. Most of us don’t pick up a magazine and read it cover-to-cover. We might flip through it first, looking at pictures and article titles. Then we go back and fully read articles that we find useful or interesting. Certain articles, or portions of articles, we may skip altogether, while others we may read several times even taking notes or making clippings of useful information that we plan on referring to again and again. Read for class the same way.

Principal: Decide whether to read, skim, or skip each assigned reading. For each assigned reading, gauge it’s importance. Will it be explicitly tested (these readings often show up many times on the syllabus and in the professor’s lectures)? If so, then read it thoroughly. Is it supplementary, referred to only once or twice in the syllabus or in the professor’s lectures and designed to give you a deeper understanding of the course? Skim it looking for key ideas. Is it background material the prof doesn’t ever mention in class and doesn’t test over? Then skip it. But when in doubt, at least skim it!

Key texts must be read thoroughly, preferably before the class. Skim them first (more on that below) [hidepost]to get a good idea of the basic layout and key points being made, then go back and read thoroughly taking notes as if it were a classroom lecture. Your goal is to only have to read the text once, so no highlighting with the intent of going back later and studying it. You’re just postponing the work until another day. Read it, take notes, and begin learning it immediately.

Other readings, those short articles or papers that are assigned for a single class and designed to round out your understanding, MAY be less important. Skim those texts before class, taking note of the key ideas. When skimming, look at illustrations and diagrams, headings and subheads, abstracts, introductions, conclusions, and chapter questions. You’re trying to get a feel for the main ideas, overall structure, and final conclusions. Take notes on those big ideas and conclusions. If the prof refers to the articles by the authors’ names, make sure you connect those names to the big ideas they are associated with.

Finally, some assigned readings will be mainly background material that the prof has no intention of testing. If you are fairly sure that a particular reading fits in that category, then feel free to skip it. It always helps to have a friend or two that have taken the particular class from this prof before, so you can ask them whether it’s safe to skip. When in doubt, at least skim it.

Keep in mind that even in key texts, there may be certain paragraphs, sections, or sidebars that you can skim or skip. Similarly, in material you choose to skim, there may be a key section you need to read thoroughly.

Overall, judge carefully how much attention an assigned reading deserves. Read for class like you read a magazine, and–keeping the test in mind–decide whether to read thoroughly, skim, or skip every assigned text.

A final caution: err on the side of safety! When in doubt, at least skim it. In some classes you may be able to cut your reading load in half with no ill effects. On the other hand, some profs only assign stuff they intend to test over, so you must read everything. Proceed with caution and good judgement![/hidepost]

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