As soon as you enter university, you know that a lot of reading is coming your way. Reading is, still, one of the crucial ways which we assimilate information and learn about various topics, and it’s important to think about how we can approach our reading with purpose.

I can still remember when I first started at university, well over 10 years ago, with great enthusiasm and excitement about all that I was going to learn. I attended my first week of classes; in the USA, full-time was 15 credits per term, and each class was 5 credits. I wanted to get ahead of the game, so I opted to take 18 credits during my first semester (6 classes per week).

The classes themselves were only 4-6 hours each week. (And, indeed, when you go into postgraduate level, you’re looking, typically, at no more than 2 hours per week!) But one thing that struck me straight away was the amount of reading I had to do.

For just one of my 6 classes, I was being assigned to read nearly half a book per week… which wasn’t something I had experienced in my secondary school education. This was compounded by the reading expectations I received in all of my other classes.

And, indeed, as you work your way up the academic ladder, so to speak, this doesn’t decrease. However, I have found one important strategy that has meant my reading workload has lightened substantially. Learning to focus.

  • Focus on what is relevant
  • Focus on what is most important
  • Focus on what compels questions

So how do you focus? By becoming an active reader, rather than a passive one.

As a passive reader I was trying to read every word and punctuation mark before each lesson. If I didn’t understand a single sentence in the assigned reading, I agonised over it until I did – wasting many unnecessary hours, in many cases. While I was reading with some purpose – the purpose to fulfil the assignment my lecturers have given me – I wasn’t reading with the right purpose, in my opinion.

Indeed, to read actively with purpose, in the most time-efficient manner, means thinking about what you are going to read before you read it, while you are reading it, and afterwards.

You might think this is likely to take even longer than reading every dot and iota…but it doesn’t.

Reading intentionally before you start means perusing your assigned text. Looking at introductions, headlines and conclusions. Considering the topic of the week – and evaluating this information quickly. I like to ask myself:

  • How does this text, generally, relate to what is being covered in this unit?
  • What do I anticipate this resource will say?

Reading intentionally during your reading means pausing and making notes where needed.

  • If I find a key figure or term which I expect will be important – I make a quick note on my laptop.
  • If I’m reading a book, sometimes I’ll add little coloured flags.
  • If I’m reading a journal article, I’ll usually make a quick note in the margins.

Reading intentionally after you finished means reviewing the notes you made whilst you were reading, and summarising them. I like to consider the following:

  • How does this text reflect what is generally being taught in the unit?
  • Do I have any questions about the reading?
  • Are there any points with which I think I might disagree?
  • How does this compare (briefly) with what else I’ve learned on this subject?

While it sounds like a lot more work than simply passively reading a document – it actually is going to help you be prepared. It helps prepare you for the classroom, when your lecturer is, likely, going to expound on this subject.

It also helps you as you begin to ruminate on the various points being discussed in the reading. And, most importantly, it helps you to focus. Indeed, as laready noted, the key to efficient reading (which doesn’t consume your life) is the ability to focus. The more you read, and practice the princples above, the more you will be able to do this effectively.