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How to Read Like a Graduate Student

Katrina H. Dunlap


If you are in graduate school—whether part-time or full-time—chances are you are inundated with multiple reading assignments. From reading dissertations to textbooks, these assignments can be time-wasted without a having a strategic approach to pull something useful out of it. While there are lots of acronym-driven reading techniques, like “SQ3R” or “Survey-Question-Read-Recite-Review,” which aim to help you build a framework to understand your reading assignment, I personally believe that these techniques take too much time to understand and are cumbersome. Below, I’ve outlined some helpful tips for you to consider with respect to your graduate-level reading assignments.

Skim it! The longer the readings are, the more likely the paragraphs in those readings are going to be “filler” which include background and tangential details. Often you don’t really need to read these paragraphs in depth to get the information you need for your classes. So by skimming each paragraph very quickly, you then get a feel for the reading and figure out which paragraphs hold the most pertinent information.

Read backwards. Knowing how the story will end will help your comprehension of what you are reading. If you want to figure out what a certain chapter is all about, you can first go to the back of the text and review the summary, vocabulary lists, chapter questions. Additionally, look for a “review” section if it is a standard textbook to get a feel for what the actual chapter wants you to learn.  When you go through the chapter, you’ll be able to identify the vocabulary or a graphic that was referenced in the review section.

Think of questions. By coming up with questions while you read, you deepen your comprehension and understanding. When you are going through the chapter, if you are skimming and something comes up that you don’t really know about, then write it down as a question. Additionally, use headings and sub-headings in the chapter as potential questions. So if there’s a sub-heading that talks about a specific concept, re-word the sub-heading as a question, write it down, and when you go through the actual content of that section, answer the question for yourself.

Pay attention to text format. Take a glance at bold and italicized text because these are almost certainly going to appear on the exam or discussed during class. Pay attention to things that stand out, and write those down.

Highlight or take notes. Never read anything without a highlighter and pencil nearby. Notetaking while reading is critical to comprehension and recollection. Using flags are helpful in marking up texts in a non-damaging way. Recording your notes in a central hub such as Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote software, allows you to reinforce what you’ve read and catalog your notes for future use.

In conclusion, no matter which method or technique you use, you have to figure out what works best for you. If you find yourself struggling to complete your assignments, it may be time to re-evaluate your approach and try something new. Mason’s Learning Services offers additional resources to aid graduate students with reading strategies, including workshops, academic coaching, and online videos. Visit the Learning Services website for more information.

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