Reading and research strategies

Reading Strategies

Being able to read effectively means more than just being able to understand what is written on the page. In this section, you can explore different reading strategies to ensure your reading, and in turn your assignments, are first-class.

Reading for different subjects

Most people, when asked, can recount an experience that undermined their confidence in their own learning. Negative comments when we are young can have a very long-term effect upon our view of ourselves as bright, capable learners. However, self-confidence has a major impact upon our ability to perform well.

  • What kind of message were you given about your abilities to study when you were at school or college?
  • Are these messages helpful to you now?
  • What attitudes would be most useful to you succeeding at your studies now?

Reading for any subject

  • Be selective. You are not expected to read books from cover to cover.
  • Change strategy. You need to develop skills in changing from one kind of reading to another, depending on how useful the information is for your purposes.
  • Use the index pages at the end of a book. Find the exact pages for what you need.
  • Read from paper. Avoid reading for long periods from computer screens if using the internet: print out a copy in a font that suits you.
  • Set targets. It is easy to lose focus when reading. Set yourself targets to complete a reading task, with clear objectives for what you want to achieve.
  • Focus. Jot down a list of questions before you read and as you go along. This will improve your attention - and save you from getting side-tracked.

Reading for different purposes

For all subjects, you will need to know how to change quickly from one kind of reading to another.

  • Browsing: looking over a text to see how it ‘feels’, whether it appears to be the right kind of book, what it contains that might be of use, getting a general feel of the contents. You often take in more information when browsing than you may think at the time.
  • Checking: looking in the contents or index to see whether the book contains specific information that you know you want - or which looks useful.
  • Focusing in: allowing yourself to read more closely when you spot something that looks more useful. It is also important to notice when the text is less useful, and to return to browsing.
  • Fact-finding: looking for specific facts and data.
  • Background: This is additional reading, which gives you a sense of the bigger picture. Select texts that are general and which you find inviting or easy to read. Read these selectively and at your own pace. This is best undertaken in vacations if possible.

Reading for understanding

The main purpose of reading is to understand - not to get through text at speed for the sake of it. Comprehension is increased if:

  • You are clear about what you are looking for.
  • You discuss your reading with others. Each person is likely to make sense of different aspects, and you can pool your ideas.
  • You read something that gives you a general overview first. For complex ideas, choose the easiest book first and work up to more complex texts.
  • You keep active. Set yourself targets and jot down questions to answer. If the book is yours, underline key points, use highlighter pens selectively, write summaries in the margin. This prevents you from ‘drifting off’ or simply reading the same text over and over without taking it in.
  • Read in short bursts of up to twenty minutes, then take a few minutes break before starting again.
  • Make notes of key points as you go along. This can create natural breaks every few minutes in your reading that can help maintain attention. See making notes.
  • Change reading speed. Often, reading faster can help memory of what you are reading, so it makes more sense. Browse quickly and focus in more slowly only where needed.

Change the text

Many people read less efficiently because they are not aware that their eyes have preferences for reading different fonts and colours. Where possible:

  • Have your eyes tested regularly.
  • Check whether you read more efficiently with larger text.
  • Experiment reading text printed on different coloured papers or using different coloured filters or lens over the text.
  • If you have access to texts through the computer, experiment with different font styles and sizes and different colour backgrounds and text.
  • See whether you read more easily in bright rooms, with certain kinds of light or in dim lighting.

Research strategies

Using information

You will be expected to read books, articles and other material such as that on the internet or in libraries to get a good feel for the subject. It may feel at times as if you have far too much information. This is quite usual. Much of your time as a student will be spent:

  • Looking for information
  • Selecting information
  • Noting and recording information
  • Interpreting information
  • Organising information for different purposes
  • Referring to information in assignments

Selecting relevant information

As there is usually far more information available than you need, you need to make choices about what to read and use. Consider:

  • Your purpose. What do you intend to do with each piece of information? Do you really need it? Can you do without it?
  • What you already have. Brainstorm your knowledge of the subject or make a list of keywords for the subject. Use this to guide your search for information in the index at the back of books, in catalogues and on the internet.
  • Is it the best source? Check whether the source is reliable, up to date, written by experts in the field, and relevant to your needs.
  • Is it the best example? You will usually be able to refer to very few examples in your assignments and seminars. As you find more information, the latest information may be better than that you have already collected. Be prepared to put the less valuable information into a separate section which you use only if absolutely necessary. Keep evaluating which material is the most up to date and best for your purposes.
  • How much do you need? Usually word limits are strict. You cannot usually make more than a few lines or a paragraph on any one example. Bear this in mind when you make notes so that you do not record more than you need. This will save you a lot of time.

Using journals

Journals are usually higher quality and are where most new research appears. It is essential that you familiarise yourself with the key journals for your subject. Find out:

  • When new journals appear.
  • What each one specialises in.
  • If they appear electronically.
  • Where in the journal article you will find the kind of information you need for the assignments you are set. Read the abstract and browse the rest of an article - this will help you to tell quickly whether an article is relevant for you.

Use the resources at your disposal

Visit the library or learning resources centre in your first few days at university. Familiarise yourself with the resources. Usually, these have a wide range of journals, CDs, audio-visual materials, as well as books. The catalogue will likely also be available online and you may also be able to order books or renew books online. There will be guidance on how to get passwords at your university and which search engines are most useful for your subject.

Manage your information

  • Browse through your files occasionally and take out information that you are unlikely to use. Store this at the back of your file or separately.
  • Label and file everything.
  • Keep lists of ISBN numbers, catalogue numbers or website addresses. This will save a lot of time looking things up later.

For more advice, see organisation skills, referencing and plagiarism and the Postgraduate students section.

For further information please see Chapter 6 of The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell. Please also seeThe Postgraduate Research Handbook by Gina Wisker.


Our memories are usually much better than we think. Almost everybody can develop their memory further.

Knowing your own mind

Everybody has different learning styles and memory styles. Think how you remember at least three of the following:

  • What was on TV last night?
  • How to spell ‘beautiful’?
  • Your telephone number?
  • How to walk upstairs?
  • The colours of the rainbow?
  • What day it is today?
  • The way to the canteen from your lecture hall?
  • Your birthday?
  • Someone else’s birthday?
  • What a barbecue is like?

Do you use the same strategy to remember each item?

Do you use more than one strategy to remember each?

Memory preferences

Each person will have his or her own set of ways of remembering any one thing. Each person will also find it easier to remember something difficult by using a different combination of strategies. Some people are outstanding at remembering things they hear aloud - so it makes sense for them to say out loud what they need to remember. Other people find they remember what they read if they sing it to themselves. Others remember things by associating them with places or people. This may feel unusual - but use what works for you. For complex and important things, you increase you chances of remembering them if you:

  • Use the strategies that work best for you.
  • Use more than one strategy.
  • Make a conscious effort to commit the information to memory.
  • Do this on at least three occasions.

Memory strategies

Some useful strategies include:

  • Putting the information to music. Try singing it.
  • Using colour. Colour code information, or use different highlighter pens for different purposes.
  • Walking to new places as you try to remember something.
  • Linking the information to other things that are relevant to you.
  • Working with the information: write it out, say it, draw it, colour it in, discuss it, argue against it, summarise it, organise it into the best order.
  • Numbering the different aspects.
  • Organising the information into a smaller number of pieces, each with its own heading, name or label.
  • Making a model of it out of clay, blocks or other material.
  • Finding out something else about it.
  • Remembering things in groups of three or five items.
  • Using several of these approaches for the same items.

This article has been written by Stella Cottrell, author of The Study Skills Handbook.