Tips for Tackling Scholarly Reading More Efficiently and in Less Time

Freaked out by a super-long reading list? Check the syllabus for any upper-level undergraduate course or graduate course and you'll likely find a long list of required or suggested readings. Realistically a graduate student can expect to read multiple articles and, depending on the field, even a book each week. Plowing through those readings will take time, but you can learn how to read more efficiently. Here are a few tips to help you get more out of your reading in less time.

Scholarly reading - empirical articles and academic texts - require a different approach than leisure reading
The biggest mistake that students make is approaching their school assignments as if they were magazines or novels. Academic reading requires more work, specifically, an active approach. Read prepared to take notes, reread paragraphs, or look up related material. It's not simply a matter of kicking back and reading.

Read in multiple passes
Sounds counter-intuitive, but the efficient reading of academic articles and texts requires multiple passes. Don't start at the beginning and finish at the end. Instead, scan the document multiple times. Take a piecemeal approach wherein you skim for the big picture and fill in the details with each pass.

Don't Highlight
If you underline text, do so minimally and stay focused on the important details. Avoid the temptation to highlight every line. Heavy highlighting is a procrastination tool because usually you're marking what you should learn instead of focusing on learning it.

Start with the abstract then scan for relevance
Begin reading an article by reviewing the abstract and then the first couple of paragraphs. Scan the headings and read the last couple of paragraphs. Is the article relevant? If you're reading potential sources for a paper, a quick scan will help you determine an article's value. You might find that there is no need to read further as the article may not suit your needs.

Dive deep
If you deem that the material is necessary for your project, after your quick scan, read it for depth, but not from beginning to end. If an article, read the introduction (especially the end where the purpose and hypotheses are outlined) and conclusion sections to determine what the authors believe they studied and learned.

Then look at the method sections to determine how they addressed their question. Then the results section to examine how they analyzed their data. Finally, re-examine the discussion section to learn about how they interpret their results, especially within the context of the discipline.

You don't have to finish
You can stop reading at any time if you decide that the article isn't important - or if you think you have all the information that you need. You're not committed to reading the entire article.  Sometimes a detailed skim is all that you need. You can always reread the article later if needed.

Take a problem-solving approach
Approach an article as you would a jigsaw puzzle, working from the edges, the outside, in. Locate the corner pieces that establish the overall framework for the article, then fill in the details, the centerpieces. Remember that sometimes you won't need those inside pieces to grasp the material. Sure, this is a metaphor, but it means that you should learn what you can by reviewing the edges - the beginning and end, then fill in the details by reviewing headings and chapters, then, if needed, seek further details by reading the full text.

Once you step away from the one reading one-pass mindset you'll find that scholarly reading is not as hard as it looks. It requires a planful, active approach. Consider each reading strategically as one size does not fit all. Decide how much you need to know about it -- and stop once you've reached that point.

Be honest
This multiple-pass and drop-if-deemed-unnecessary approach requires honesty on your part. It's easy to quickly conclude that an article isn't useful or that you have learned all that you can -- when you really haven't. Be careful. Before dropping an article, quiz yourself on its content. If you can explain why an article isn't needed or articulate its main points and relevance to your project or course, you can move on to another reading. If you can't explain the reading and its relevance, then dive deeper and read it again.