Study Guide - Teach Yourself to Read
The need to read
It may be a strange thing to say, but many students when they start college have little idea how to read! OK - I know that you can read in the sense that you can work out what the words on the screen mean, but do you really appreciate the difference between reading a web page and reading a book or a journal? Today, many courses are taught from handouts and Internet links, but that is not enough if you want to succeed at the highest level.
We have all become used to getting our information in pre-packaged chunks - I'm writing one now, come to that! - and students have got into bad habits in terms of copying and pasting from web pages to essay pages, so the prospect of using books as information sources can daunt the modern student.
That's definitely the first thing to take on board! If you have been given a booklist by your tutor, there will probably be some items on it that are "musts" and others that are "recommended". With the latter, you don't need to read them all. With the former, you don't need to read them all at once! If you can get hold of several of them, do so, but at this stage only look through them and see what it is that you need to know and that is contained within them. Write this down, and make your list the basis of your study plan, either for the term/semester or the assignment to hand. Work out a system of priorities, and a preferred order as to which books you need to tackle first, second, etc.
You should be able find all the books in your college library, but remember that there are other people looking for the same books and they may not all be there when you want them. Don't take out everything you find, as this is unfair to your fellow students. Just take what you can manage to work on at the moment.
Choosing what to read
Don't just rely on the books on your booklist. Indeed, you may find this hard to do if most of the items are missing from the library shelves. You can always ask the library staff for help in tracking down other books that might help with your assignment.
There are certain clues as to which books are likely to be most useful. For example, the well-thumbed ones have clearly proved useful to students in the past, and might have useful material in them for you as well.
Remember that your college library caters for students at all levels, including postgraduates, and for academic staff, so some of the books will be more advanced than others. Use material that you are comfortable with.
Getting down to it
Read a small amount at a time, and re-read it if it doesn't sink in the first time. If it does your head in, leave it and come back to it later. Find the key points and note them down. DON'T go through the book with a highlighter pen marking all the key points in bright orange or whatever. This applies even if it is a book that you have bought for yourself. Another time you might want to read it for another purpose, and the key points will not necessarily be the same. However, if you photocopy the relevant pages, using the highlighter is not such a bad move.
You also need to learn to speed-read. This is the technique of focusing on only certain words on the page and ignoring the rest. You might need to get out of the habit (assuming that you are in it!) of "reading aloud in your head". The idea is to gain an impression of what the text is about, so that you can move quickly between the sections that need more concentrated attention. With practice you can become quite skilled at this.
Ask your own questions
This applies to any information source you may use, whether printed or web-based. It is certainly true that many Internet sources need to be treated with extreme caution as providers of trusted information, but just because something appears in print in a book does not mean that it must be taken as gospel. Note down things that surprise you, or look dubious, and compare them with what you read in other sources.
For one thing, how up-to-date is the information? You can usually find when the book was published by looking at the back of the title page. Is there a later edition of the book? Is this available to you? If you know that the information is old, it could be unreliable.
You also need to distinguish between what the author describes as fact and what comprises his/her opinion based on that fact. In most academic textbooks you will find that authors give references to the sources from which they obtained their facts. As a student you are not expected to check those sources yourself, but you could if you find the facts in question hard to believe!
Organise your notes
When you have read as much of the book as you need and are ready to move on to something else, you should have several pages of notes that contain the essential facts and opinions that you might want to make use of in your essay or assignment. Whatever you do, don't lose those notes! If they are handwritten, or are marked up photocopies, file them in a way that ensures they are easy to find. You could mark the page edges in a colour that you have assigned for that particular subject, and then go straight to that colour when you need to refer back to the notes.
A better plan is to make your notes on a laptop, which gives you many more options for using the material later. Don't forget to make back-ups though!
Also, remember to include in your notes proper references to the material in question. If your college uses the Harvard referencing system, use it at this stage to label your notes so that you don't have to go back to the book at a time when it might not be available. If you have noted a particular line or short passage, include the page number(s) as part of your reference.