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What is your study programme?

Reading effectively

Last modified on 02-08-2022 18:05
How do you ensure that you understand and remember the content of a book or article?
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A good start

Many students dive into a book and struggle their way through it without first getting to grips with the material. But this is actually an essential part of the process. It’s a bit like the jigsaw puzzle you did as a child. You would have started with the edge pieces and the corners, before you put in the other pieces. You need these edge pieces and corners when you’re reading, too. 


An important corner piece is your objective. Why are you reading this book? What is expected of you after studying the book? What do you already know? How should you read it? Books for a course that you will be examined on must be read differently from books that you are using to glean information from for a thesis. We assume here that you are reading a book that you need to read for an exam. Make sure you check the learning objective for the course and for the week on Canvas before you start.

And now the practical part: how do you do it?

Once you have established your objective, skim read the book. This will give you the edge pieces and corners of the puzzle. This doesn’t take long, it just helps you get an overview of the book. Skim-reading comprises three levels (book, chapter, paragraph), each of which includes a number of steps. For all of these steps, you should: ask yourself questions and try to link what you’re reading to what you already know. Read actively, not passively.

Tackling a book

Level 1 skim reading: the entire book

Scan through the various components of the book. Start with the title, the table of contents and the foreword. This will give you an idea of what to expect. If the book has a conclusion, it’s a good idea to read this first. That way you know what the author is aiming for and you will instantly see the main themes of the book. If the book has a summary, you will know exactly what to expect and what is important. By skim reading in this way you will quickly get an idea of what the book is about. You may not understand everything at this point, but you’ll know what to look out for. 

Level 2 skim reading: chapter

Skim through the chapter. Read paragraph titles, headings, titles, the conclusion, the summary and questions. This should take about 10 minutes.

Level 3 skim reading: paragraph

Read the first sentence of each paragraph, then read the entire paragraph in detail.

It may be that the book doesn’t have a conclusion or summary. In that case you should try to get to grips with the book or chapter by establishing the structure, skim reading and reading the first sentence of each paragraph. This will often give you sufficient information too.

Tackling an article

Articles often contain a huge amount of information and can’t be read quickly. You can, however, increase your reading speed by applying skim reading techniques. In the case of an article, you should follow the following steps:

  1. Title and author
  2. Abstract
  3. Headings and paragraphs
  4. Titles and diagrams
  5. Conclusion
  6. Summary
  7. The first sentence of each paragraph
  8. Read the entire article

If you apply this technique, you’ll read more quickly and you’ll understand the article better. This will reduce the total amount of time you spend on each article and improve your understanding. 

Keep up with the material

If you keep up with the literature, you’ll develop a helicopter view. In other words, you’ll get an overview of all the material and will understand clearly how things relate to each other. This takes time, however, and it can’t be done just before an exam. The best thing to do is to read the relevant literature prior to your lecture (skim read it first, then read it in more detail). But if you run short on time, you can always spend 15 minutes before the lecture skim reading the material. That way you will grasp some of the material at least. You should then read the literature in detail once the lecture is over.

Other reading objectives

You can apply the same skim reading techniques when reading literature for a thesis or paper. Just select those parts of the document that are relevant to your objective, so you don’t have to go back and re-read everything later. 

Training courses and workshops

The UvA provides additional support for various topics through information meetings, workshops, training courses and groups. You can learn more about these by clicking on training courses and workshops.