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Avoid Common Reading Mistakes

New challenges, new projects, and new ideas require new approaches to reading — and most Northwestern undergrads at some point will feel unprepared for the type and quantity of reading required here. Strategies that worked in high school just aren’t effective anymore.

Following are some of the most common mistakes Northwestern students make in their reading, and suggestions for avoiding them. Note: Although the principles can apply to many kinds of reading, we are focusing here on reading for information (textbooks, articles, etc.), as opposed to reading literary texts.

Reading without purpose.

Many students dutifully read a text from start to finish, only to realize at the end that they’re not sure exactly what they were supposed to be learning. Be sure that you know why you are reading: Do you want to understand key concepts, familiarize yourself with a new area of work, explore different points of view? Knowing your goal ahead of time can help you focus on the right material and use the right strategies for learning it.

Reading passively.

Making it to the end of a difficult chapter might feel like an accomplishment, but just reaching the end isn’t enough. To truly learn from what you’re reading, you need to interact with the text. Take notes, jot down questions, find connections among different ideas, map ideas out, compare notes with a friend — in short, do things that will help you engage deeply with the material and make it your own.

Reading to memorize.

Yes, sometimes committing material to memory is important. But if you don’t go beyond that, you won’t hold on to the new knowledge, or understand it at a deep level. Try describing content you’re memorizing more fully, organizing it into meaningful categories, summarizing it in your own words, comparing it to other content you’ve learned, or asking yourself (or a classmate) questions about it. You’ll remember it better long-term, and you’ll understand the meaning behind the terms.

Assuming you understand.

We’ve all had the experience of thinking we understand some concept, only to feel embarrassed later when we’re asked to explain it and realize we didn’t understand as well as we’d thought. It’s all too easy to glide over complicated material, thinking “OK, that makes sense,” without checking to see whether you truly understand. When you encounter a key concept — even if it seems straightforward — stop and try to explain it in your own words, or use it in a problem or other application, to check your understanding. And go back and do that again later.

Doing all your reading at once.

Busy schedules often mean putting off reading and studying until the last minute, and as a consequence reading many sections or chapters at once. In general, however, spacing out your reading and studying is a much better strategy for long-term retention. Spacing out your reading also gives you an opportunity to think about how different ideas interrelate, and to go back and clarify points you may not have understood well at the first read.

Highlighting, highlighting, highlighting.

Highlighting the important sections of a text can be useful in helping you focus on key material, but highlighting large amounts of text, or highlighting without thinking carefully about what you are highlighting and why, can actually be detrimental to learning. So keep your highlighters, but use with caution.