The term ‘reading for a degree’ has been around for a long time, yet reading is a skill that relatively few students have developed as systematically as they can. The following suggestions may help students take more control of their reading styles:

Remind students how easy it is to read passively: In other words, just reading something often yields low learning pay-off. You could demonstrate this to them in a large-group session by giving them a handout with some printed information, then later in the session testing them on the content. Suggest that time spent ‘just reading’ can be almost wasted as far as real learning is concerned, and that they can and should develop additional ways of focusing their attention as they read.

Point out the value of jotting down questions before reading something: It then becomes ‘reading with an agenda in mind’ and is automatically more active. As answers to the questions are found, they tend to register.

Help students to make good use of their sources and resources: Remind them that the most important pages of textbooks are often the contents pages and the index. Suggest that tracking down the relevant information is one of the most important aspects of good reading skills, and information retrieval skills are just as useful with online sources as with textbooks and journal articles.

Suggest that active reading is normally doen with a pen: For example, making summary notes and mental maps are useful ways of helping ensure that the important ideas are being distilled and refined during reading.

Get students primed to make lists of questions as they read: Any important information can simply be regarded as the answers to some questions. The measure of how effectively they have read something depends on how well they can identify the questions it addressed, and then answer these questions on it. These questions can later serve as triggers for the important information they have been reading about, and can be used as summaries to aid revision.

Give students suggestions about when speed-reading can be useful: For example, when doing a preliminary ‘skim’ of a large body of information, speed-reading is very useful for creating a mental map of the information available. Suggest that students check that they are not ‘stuck’ in a ‘recitation’ mode of reading (often picked up at school in reading-aloud exercises), where the speed of reading is limited to the speed at which students can ‘hear’ the words in their minds. Help them to realise that they can read several times faster than they can ‘hear’.

Help students to identify how best to find out what a paragraph is about: For some kinds of information, reading just the first sentence of every paragraph can be enough. This tecnnique is particularly useful as part of a process of finding the most relevant paragraphs, which can then be read more slowly and thoroughly.

Encourage students to personalize their source materials: When they own their own books, recommend that they ‘make their books their own’ – for example, by writinig on them, using highlighter pens, photocopying crucial extracts and arranging them in a scrapbook format, and so on. The same applies to handout materials, and printouts from material downloaded from the Web. (Obviously, advise against defacing library copies. Furthermore, recognise that many students nowadays ‘buy to sell back’, so that annotating their books with Post-it notes can be the most suitable approach to personalising them temporarily.)

Quality of reading counts more than quantity of reading: Encourage students to be selective. Advise them that quality of reading and relevance are much more important than mere breadth of reading – especially when preparing for written exams. Only so much can be written in an exam room.

Point out the danger of using reading as a work avoidance tactic: Despite the various ways of improving the quality of reading, remind students that most ‘high-pay-off learning’ is learning by doing in one form or another – not just reading. Activities such as practising answering questions on what has been read have higher learning pay-off than does reading.