Active reading is a planned, deliberate set of strategies to engage with text-based materials with the purpose of increasing your understanding. This is a key skill you need to master for college. Along with listening, it is the primary method for absorbing new ideas and information in college. But active reading also applies to and facilitates the other steps of the learning cycle; it is critical for preparing, capturing, and reviewing, too.
In college, most professors do not spend much time reviewing the reading assignment in class. Rather, they expect that you have done the reading assignment before coming to class and understand the material. The class lecture or discussion is often based on that expectation. Tests, too, are based on that expectation. This is why active reading is so important, it’s up to you to do the reading and comprehend what you read.
Note: It may not always be clear on an professor’s syllabus, but the corresponding textbook chapter for the topics listed for that week should be read before coming to class.
How Do You Read to Learn?
The four steps of active reading are almost identical to the four phases of the learning cycle—and that is no coincidence! Active reading is learning through reading the written word, so the learning cycle naturally applies.
Active reading involves these steps:
- Capturing the key ideas
Let’s take a look at how to use each step when reading.
Preparing to Read
Your textbook as a whole – Start by thinking about why your professor has chosen this text. Look at the table of contents; how does it compare with the course syllabus?
Your chapter as a whole – Explore the chapter by scanning the pages of the chapter to get a sense of what the chapter is about. Look at the headings, illustrations and tables. Read the introduction and summary. Understanding the big picture of the chapter will help you add the details when doing close reading.
Give yourself direction by creating a purpose or quest for your reading. This will help you become more actively engaged in your reading. Create questions to find the answers to in your reading using the headings of each section. You may also have learning objectives listed at the front of each chapter which could be turned into questions or you may have chapter review questions prepared for you at the end of the chapter.
Take the first question you have prepared and think about what you already know about this question. Jot the question down on paper. Begin to read the chapter and stop when you have found the answer.
Write down the answer in short form. Leave some space for additional notes you may want to add later and add the next question. Continue reading this way until you are done the chapter or are done studying for this session.
Capturing the key ideas
Before you put away your textbook and notes at the end of a reading session, go back through the questions you answered and pull out key ideas and words. You can highlight these, jot them in the space you left below your answer or note them in the margins.
Reviewing what you read
For each question, cover up the answer and key ideas you have written. Can you still answer the question? Check your mental review against what you have written.
Additional Reading Tips:
The four steps to active reading provide a proven approach to effective learning from texts. Following are some tips you can use to enhance your reading even further:
- Pace yourself. Figure out how much time you have to complete the reading assignment. Divide the assignment into smaller blocks rather than trying to read the entire assignment in one sitting.
- Schedule your reading. Set aside blocks of time, preferably at the time of the day when you are most alert, to do your reading assignments.
- Read your most difficult assignments early in your reading time, when you are freshest.
- Get yourself in the right space. Choose to read in a quiet, well-lit space. Your chair should be comfortable but provide good support.
- Avoid distractions. Active reading takes place in your short-term memory. Every time you move from task to task, you have to “reboot” your short-term memory and you lose the continuity of active reading.
- Avoid reading fatigue. Work for about fifty minutes, and then give yourself a break for five to ten minutes. Put down the book, walk around, get a snack, stretch, or do some deep knee bends. Short physical activity will do wonders to help you feel refreshed.
- Make your reading interesting. Try connecting the material you are reading with your class lectures or with other chapters. Ask yourself where you disagree with the author. Approach finding answers to your questions like an investigative reporter. Carry on a mental conversation with the author.
- You are expected to keep up with your chapter and other readings independently. While your professor may not remind you, the expectation is that you will have read and understood the chapter material for the topics listed in the course outline for that week BEFORE class begins.
- Active reading is a process of preparing, reading, capturing key ideas and reviewing.
- To prepare, scan the chapter to find out what the chapter is about. Give yourself direction by creating questions. Write down your first question and read until you find the answer. Write down your answer, leave some space and move on to the next question. Repeat. At the end of your reading session, go back and pull out key ideas and words to add in the spaces between questions. Review by mentally answering the questions and check yourself against your reading notes.