Regardless of why you are reading the particular text, the key to reading effectively is to always have a purpose in mind. You should always know why you are reading and what you want to get from the material. During the course of your studies you will be required to read for a variety of purposes, discussed below.
Each course that you complete will have a certain amount of required reading. This may come in the form of textbooks, journal articles, or other texts prescribed by your course coordinator and tutors. Doing the required reading will assist your understanding of the lecture material and prepare you for participation in tutorials. To get the most out of your course readings, consider the following questions.
- How does this text relate to the course theme this week?
- Do the authors of this week's readings share the same ideas? If so, why? If not, how do they differ, and why?
- If you have tutorial questions, how do the readings help to answer the tutorial questions?
- Do you agree with the views presented in the texts? Why / why not?
- What evidence do the readings use? Is this evidence comprehensive, or is it focused on one aspect?
- If the text focuses on just one aspect of a topic, what are the strengths and limitations of its focus?
- When were the texts written? Why were they written at that time? Have there been any new developments in your field since they were written?
- How do this week's readings compare to previous weeks' readings?
Sometimes you will also be given a list of suggested or "recommended" reading material. This material is useful if you feel you need more information on that topic or it may be a topic that will be included in an upcoming assessment. Take the time at the beginning of the semester to establish what is required and what is recommended. Remember, it is unlikely that you will have enough time to read all of the texts in full.
When you are doing your set readings it is important to critically engage with the reading by relating your reading to the topic and the rest of the course material.
Background research for an assessment task
When you commence an assessment task such as an essay, you need to gather some background information in order to decide on your response to the assessment question. In an essay, it is not enough to describe what others have said and done, or even just to critically evaluate your sources. You need to take a position on the topic - decide what you think about the topic from your reading and why you think what you do. Your 'position' on a topic is your point of view or your thesis. Positions are often complex and highly qualified (i.e. there's no simple answer). When you read for an essay, you are trying to develop your position. As you critically evaluate the literature, try to identify the main ideas you want to bring forward in developing your position. This reading will help you to come up with a tentative position that will assist in narrowing the scope of your further research. You could ask the following questions.
- What are the similar and different points of view about the assignment's topic?
- What types of evidence are usually discussed?
- Have there been changes over time in how this topic is analysed?
- Which theories are typically applied to analyse the topic?
- What are the main ideas that keep appearing about this topic?
Specific research on aspects of your assessment.
When you are writing an essay, in order to support your position/argument, you will need to provide specific evidence to back up your main ideas. This sort of reading is very focused. To do this, keep generating questions as you read.
- Why does the author think this?
- Does the author have a background in your field? E.g. are they an anthropologist or a psychologist? How does this affect their point of view?
- What are the underlying assumptions in the text?
- What are the controversial issues or ideas here?
- Are there any problems - in the methodology used, the theory applied, ideological biases that are skewing the argument etc.?
- How adequate is the evidence presented?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the different papers as you see them, and why?
- Do you agree with the author's arguments? Why / why not?
Reading with these questions in mind means reading critically.
Some other things to consider
- It is not a good idea to adopt a position then go to the literature in search of material to support that position; use your background research to help you come up with a tentative position which you may need to adjust as you do further reading.
- In working up a position, you need to hold your sources in relation to each other: draw mind maps, graphs or the like to help you sketch out how different readings relate to one another. This will help you develop a clear overview of the different positions taken on a particular issue, and why this may be so.
- Though it may be tempting to only read material that supports your position or view, in order to present a balanced and nuanced response you will need to acknowledge and deal with counter-arguments. So make sure to read material that may contradict your argument, as well as material that supports it.
- All sources need to be thoroughly interrogated. Maintain a healthy scepticism, keep an open mind, probe for biases, problems etc.
There is no one "right" position - different writers will take different positions on the same topic. What is important is that you have a strong position. The strength of your position will depend on the quality of your ideas, the quality of the evidence you use to support them, and the quality of the reasoning you use to develop them.