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It might be useful to consider these three issues when you pick up a text:

  • Research Aim: what are you reading for? What type of information are you looking for, and what will you use it for?
  • Research Technique: what kind of reading strategy will you employ?
  • Research Record: what notes will you take, what format will you use, and what will you do with them?

Once you have identified your research aim, the strategies below will suggest appropriate research techniques for locating information and for recording it. 

Strategies to try: Research Techniques

Research aim: To decide if a text will be useful

Once you have identified items on a reading list or catalogue search which seem as if they might be relevant, you need to locate them and assess whether they will in fact be useful. This can be a very quick process and does not involve reading the whole text.

  • Firstly, identify some key words which relate to your topic. Having a clear idea of what you are looking for will speed the process up, partly because it focuses your reading, and partly because your eye will recognise these words as it scans the pages.
  • Scan the text to see if it deals with the topic at all. Depending on if it is a book or article, briefly scan the title page, 'blurb', contents page, any subheadings, book preface, introduction or article abstract, index of keywords at the back and conclusion. Don't try to read in depth - you are just looking for the key words.

Research aim: To locate relevant information within a text

  • Bear in mind your key words. Use the index, if there is one, and also skim read the introduction or abstract and chapter headings or subheadings to get a sense of the text's structure. Scan the opening paragraphs of chapters and opening lines of paragraphs to see if the topic is covered. Where you find information, note down the page number (or highlight or use a post it note if it is your own copy) so that you can return to it later to read it in depth.

Research aim: To get the main ideas of a text

  • Use skimming to gain an overview of the main points without becoming bogged down in the detail. This involves running your eye quickly over the lines, paying particular attention to the opening and closing lines of paragraphs and any signpost words which indicate how these points relate to each other. Your speed of skim reading will increase with practice, but this method also relies on not reading everything, rather than reading everything fast. You may need to return to sections in depth later, and find a way of summarising or marking interesting sections as you go, and recording your own responses, rather than taking copious notes.

Research aim: intensive understanding

This form of reading aims to understand the text in depth and is therefore more labour intensive and slower than other strategies. However, it should be greatly speeded up if you have already scanned and skimmed the text to locate relevant sections and gained an overview of their context in the text.

  • Your reading should be as active as possible, to enable you to interpret and digest the text's meaning. Note making will be key in this. Copying out large amounts of the text is a common pitfall; it slows you down and results in notes that you probably will not use. Try instead making a summary in your own words of what the text says, and recording your own response to it. Only copy out short sections, and ask yourself each time if you think you will be using it as a quotation, and why. If not, it might be better to summarise. Make sure that you make a clear distinction between the different kinds of note to avoid accidental plagiarism.

Research aim: to critique a text

This form of reading entails entering into an active 'dialogue' with the text, interrogating it closely. Critical reading has three meanings:

  • Is this text fit for purpose? (these should largely have been answered when selecting your texts)
  • Is this text well researched and argued, and are its conclusions sound?
  • How does this text fit into a wider debate on the topic?

Try reading with a number of questions in mind:

  • Who is the author? What is their background (discipline and theoretical standpoint)?
  • What question are they asking, and is it a valid and useful one?
  • What is their ‘agenda'?
  • What is their conclusion, and how did they arrive at it?
  • Are their evidence, interpretation and argument sound and consistent?
  • What assumptions are they making and how does this affect their reasoning?
  • Do their findings fit or disagree with other scholarship? Is this a mainstream view, or minority?
  • Is the work outdated?

There are also even simpler questions you can pose of each paragraph or sentence as you read:

  • Why? How?
  • What does the author mean by that?
  • How does the author know that?
  • So what? Why is this important?

CUSU's Student Advice Service website also offers some advice on speed reading.