(Editor’s note: Learning is one of the most important activities that humans take part in. The process of learning can be delightful, and it can also be a total nightmare. Part of the secret to learning more easily is to understand HOW to study. Ron Fry is an expert on this topic, and he has kindly permitted us to share these proven tips with you! Look for an interview in the near future with Ron, on BrainSpeak Radio.)
Adaptation from How to Study: The Program That Has Helped Millions of Students Study Smarter, Not Harder (Career Press, 2016) by Ron Fry.
You may love reading novels, short stories or poetry but have trouble with textbook assignments for certain subjects. You may finish reading a long passage and forget it almost immediately. Or you just may hate the thought of sitting still to read anything. Whatever kind of student you are‑and whatever your level of reading skill‑here are some tips to: reduce the time you spend reading, identify the main ideas and important details, and remember more of what you read.
Begin with a very quick overview of the assignment, looking for questions that you’d like answered. Consider the following elements of your reading assignment before you begin your reading:
Chapter titles and boldfaced heads and subheads announce the detail about the main topic. And, in some textbooks, paragraph headings or boldfaced “lead-ins” announce that the author is about to provide finer details.
So start each reading assignment by going through the chapter, beginning to end, reading only the boldfaced heads and subheads.
Look for end-of-chapter summaries. Knowing what the author deems important will help you look for the building blocks of his conclusions while you’re reading.
Most textbooks, particularly those in the sciences, will have charts, graphs, numerical tables, maps and other illustrations. Be sure to observe how they supplement the text and what points they emphasize, and make note of these.
In some textbooks, you’ll discover that key terms and information are highlighted within the body text. To find the definitions of these terms may then be your purpose for reading.
Some textbook publishers use a format in which key points are emphasized by questions, either within the body of or at the end of the chapter. If you read these questions before reading the chapter, you’ll have a better idea of what material you need to pay closer attention to.
The best way to begin any reading assignment is to skim the pages to get an overview of what information is included, seeking some of the “clues” we’ve previously discussed. Then read the text carefully, word-for-word, and highlight, underline or take notes in your notebook, on your computer or in the book itself.
A brief digression: Most everyone I know confuses the words “skim” and “scan.” Let me set the record straight.
Skim is to read quickly and superficially.
Scan is to read carefully but for a specific item.
So when you skim a reading selection, you are reading it in its entirety, though you’re only hitting the “highlights.” When you scan a selection, you are reading it in detail but only until you find what you’re looking for. Scanning is the fastest reading rate of all—although you are reading in detail, you are not seeking to comprehend or remember anything that you see until you find the specific information you’re looking for.
You probably are assigned a lot of reading that can be accomplished by skimming for facts. By establishing the questions you want answered before you begin to read, you can quickly go through the material, extracting only the information you need.
Let’s say you’re reading a science book with the goal of identifying the function of a cell’s nucleus. You can breeze through the section that describes the parts of the cell and skim the description of what cells do. You already know what you’re looking for—and there it is in the section that talks about what each cell part does. Now you can start to read.
By identifying the questions you wanted to answer (a.k.a. your purpose) in advance, you would be able to skim the chapter and answer your questions in a lot less time than it would have taken to painstakingly read every word.
Skimming, or pre-reading, is a valuable step even if you aren’t seeking specific facts. When skimming for a general overview, there’s a very simple procedure to follow:
As a general rule, if you are reading textbook material word for word, you probably are wasting quite a bit of your study time. Good readers are able to discern what they should read in this manner and what they can afford to skim.
When trying to simply gather detail and facts, skimming a text is a simple and very important shortcut that can save you a lot of reading time. Even if a more in-depth reading is necessary, you will find that by having gone through this process, you will have developed the kind of skeletal framework that will make your further reading faster, easier, and more meaningful.
Whether you’re skimming or scanning, you will have equipped yourself with the ability to better digest whatever the author is trying to communicate.
While the heads, subheads, first sentences, and other author-provided hints will help you get a quick read on what a chapter’s about, some of the words in that chapter will help you home in on the important points and ignore the unimportant. Knowing when to speed up, slow down, stop, or really concentrate will help you read both faster and more effectively.
When you see words such as “likewise,” “in addition,” “moreover,” “furthermore,” and the like, you should know nothing new is being introduced. If you already know what’s going on, you can speed up or skip what’s coming entirely.
On the other hand, when you see words like “on the other hand,” “nevertheless,” “however,” “rather,” “but,” and their ilk, slow down—you’re getting information that adds a new perspective or contradicts what you’ve just read.
Lastly, watch out for “payoff” words such as, “in conclusion,” “therefore,” “thus,” “consequently,” and “to summarize,” especially if you only have time to “hit the high points” of a chapter or if you’re reviewing for a test. Here’s where the author has tied up everything that went before in a nice bow. This unexpected present may help you avoid having to unwrap the entire chapter.
If a more thorough reading of a text is required, go back to the beginning. Read one section (chapter, unit, whatever) at a time. As you read, make sure you know what’s going on by asking yourself if the passage is written to address one of these five questions:
Do not go on to the next chapter or section until you’ve completed the following exercise:
Put these tips into practice and you will be amazed at how much less time you need to spend reading and how much more you retain! Even if you are not attending classes, this advice can help you get the most out of on-the-job training materials or self-study pursuits.
RON FRY is a nationally known proponent for the improvement of public education and an advocate for parents and students, playing an active role in strengthening personal education programs. In addition to being the author of the best-selling HOW TO STUDY series, which has sold more than 3,000,000 copies to date, Fry has written more than 30 other books in the area of education and careers. He is the founder and president of Career Press, an internationally known independent publisher of trade nonfiction books.
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