How to Read and Prepare for Class


The best approach to do really well in this course.

Think of reading as an active process. When watching a movie or television, it’s easy to sit back and experience what’s taking place in front of your eyes in a passive way. And afterward, you might well feel that you fully understood it and have no trouble talking about what you saw. It’s possible to take a similar approach to reading, but chances are you won’t be getting much out of it. To read effectively at a college level you have to interact with the text in an active way as you read it.

What does this mean? In part this means extracting the main ideas from the text. By “extract” I mean that you identify them and pull them out. Some kinds of work (such as articles in certain journals) are prefaced with an abstract, and sometimes an author comes right out and says what he/she thinks the main point is. Often there are no such crutches provided, but you still need to make your own ideas from a piece.

It is always useful to ask yourself questions like these about what you read: 

  • What is the argument being advanced? What are the main points or components of that argument?
  • Who is the author arguing against, explicitly or implicitly? What are alternative ways of seeing things, and does the author deal with them effectively? 
  • What evidence does the text draw on?
  • Does the piece depend on important assumptions, and if so, how plausible are they?
  • How does this connect with, reinforce or contradict other things you have read or talked about in class?
  • How convincing is this overall? What did you learn from it? What might be the weak points?

I want to stress how important it is to capitalize on the time you’ve spent reading by writing down the answers to at least 4 of the questions above. 

Think of it this way: You’re not quite done yet when you get to the end of the reading. You passed your eyes over most or all of the words in the text and you turned through one page after another. But hang on a second. Whatever you read is now warmed up in your mind and you are familiar with it, but have you really gotten what you need out of it? How much will you remember the next day or a few days later when you’re sitting in the classroom? Or, what about weeks later when you’re preparing for an exam? Typically, this is the point at which just a little bit of further work on your part will go a long way.

1. Don’t use a highlighter unless you plan on making notes or an outline from the highlighted text. Otherwise, highlighters are not useful. 

2. Write down key arguments and make your own outline of the author’s ideas using the answers you have from the above questions.

3. Mark things you don’t understand, areas of uncertainty and so on: bring them to class. Also, look up words you do not know in the dictionary. Also bring those to class.

4. Mark two or three areas of potential disagreement or debate: construct a CRITIQUE of the reading to share during discussion.