No matter which courses you take at Stark College & Seminary, reading will be assigned. Reading is a foundational skill for higher education success, but many students struggle to read and comprehend their textbooks. Even at Harvard, reading comprehension among new students is declining; a 2014 article in Harvard’s newspaper argued all freshmen should be required to take a Reading Course. 

1. Stop looking for small details

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It is tempting to approach reading from a “pop quiz” mentality. You are worried about being stumped by a question, and so you focus on memorizing every detail, including captions and footnotes. The problem with this approach is that it’s so easy to miss the forest for the trees. Stop trying to absorb every tiny detail, and instead look for the larger themes.

2. Learn the art of systematic skimming

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Before beginning to read a specific chapter in a book, you should first read the entire book at a superficial level. That is correct – skimming through the book will help you read the book in greater detail. Look through the chapter headings, and notice key words (look for italics, bold words, and underlined phrases). Sometimes authors will highlight key quotations in the margin. Read the first and last paragraph of each chapter – many times, authors will summarize the content in these paragraphs. Skimming will give you an overview of the author’s argument and help you understand the most important ideas you will encounter as you read in greater detail.

3. Read the back cover…and the table of contents…and the introduction!

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As you skim, don’t forget to read the entire book, including the front matter and the back cover or dust jacket. Every author wants you to know their main idea. They do their best to communicate through repetition. The back cover usually contains a condensed summary. The introduction is preparing you for the contents. The table of contents are organized in a specific way to support the author’s conclusion. Reviewing these parts of the book will further prepare you to understand the author’s argument.

4. Identify the author’s thesis

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As you read, see if you can identify the author’s main idea, or thesis. Sometimes, an author will give you a clue and say something like “This book will argue…” or “In a nutshell, this book is about…” But even if the author doesn’t give you that clear of a statement, you can likely make a reasonable guess after skimming through the book. The reason it is important to identify the author’s thesis is every chapter is going to present evidence to support the thesis. Once you know the author’s main idea, you will be better positioned to comprehend how all of the chapters fit together. 

5. Realize you can’t read everything, so choose wisely

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At some point in your seminary career, you are going to have to write a research paper. This will require reading sources, taking notes, and presenting an organized summary of your research. As you will quickly discover, there is an overwhelming amount of information available for you to read. You will have to make choices about which sources you will use for your research and which ones you will set aside for another day. Systematic skimming will be a key part of this decision making process. Skim through the table of contents, back cover, and the introduction, and then ask yourself if the author’s thesis is going to better help you develop your argument. If so, then make a note of the book so you can review it in more detail. If not, then set it aside and move on to the next source.

 

Like all important skills, there is no substitute for practice if you want to get better. To improve your reading abilities, you are going to have to read and read and read and read. Hopefully, these tips will help you read more quickly and focus on understanding the material.