College Reading Secrets Your Professor Expects You to Know

The best college students will tell you, reading well is the key to college success. If you can’t read quickly and efficiently, you will struggle. But reading well means more than speed. You need to be able to analyze, evaluate, interpret and use what you read. Read on to learn the reading secrets your professor wishes you knew. Practice them and you will perform better.

You’re Not in High School Any More

The days of being able to skim a few pages of the reading and fake it in class are over. In college you will be required to read far more than you may be used to, the readings will be more complex, and you will be asked to do more with them. Failure to read up to your professors’ expectations is a major cause of student under-performance.

Reading Expectations

Reading is a primary channel of learning in college. Your professors will expect you to be able to read and understand complex written material, often with little guidance or in-class discussion. Further, they may expect you to form your own perspective on the material, draw connections to other readings or ideas, or apply the concepts you learned to solve problems or interpret phenomena. Because of these expectations, you should expect your reading speed to slow down. Whereas in high school, you may have been able to read a page in a minute or two, college reading may take you between six and eight minutes or more per page.

Unlike high school, you can expect to spend two hours or more reading in preparation for each class session in every course you take. So if you are taking 15 course-hours a week, you may need to allocate 30 or more hours a week just for reading.

In order to get the most out of your time spent reading, you will have to set ambitious reading goals. In high school, you might have read passively for the gist, or to absorb, store and retrieve information. But in college, you will need to read actively by taking notes, making comments, asking questions, making connections, and paraphrasing difficult passages to understand them better.

In college, you read in order to respond to the text, often in writing. You use your reading to evaluate viewpoints, solve problems, and create new ideas. To do that, you need to do more than absorb information, you need to become conversant with the ideas in the text. Being conversant means being able to speak about the ideas of a text accurately and precisely without referring to it. College readers see texts as entries in an ongoing conversation. As they read, they don’t just agree or disagree. They seek to understand the nuances and ideas of people who think differently from them, with the purpose of reconsidering their own habitual ways of understanding the world.

Analysis and Interpretation

To fulfill these more advanced reading goals, you may need to alter your reading habits. In particular you will need to take an analytical approach to reading your sources in order to interpret them. By interpretation I mean the process by which you come see the significance, meaning or implications of the ideas, data, and questions with which you are working. Analysis and interpretation are notoriously fuzzy terms. But it’s not hard to be concrete about the process to use to generate them. Let’s begin by understanding what it means to read analytically towards an interpretation.

To read analytically is to pay attention to, understand, assess, and comment on

  1. The sequence of moves a writer uses to make an argument,
  2. The relationship between claims made and the evidence and logic used to support them,
  3. The significance and implications of specific key words or phrases a writer chooses to convey his or her view,
  4. Patterns in data, ideas, methods, or perspectives,
  5. Anomalous data, ideas, methods, or perspective once a pattern has been established,
  6. The explicit or tacit organizing binaries or oppositions in the piece,

Reading analytically also means

  1. To uncover and reveal the tacit values and assumptions which anchor a writer’s perspective,
  2. To understand the larger contexts in which specific data or phenomenon are relevant,
  3. To explore and reveal the implications of the data, ideas, or methods.

Reading for College: The Process

While it may seem that reading analytically requires you to pay attention to a lot, the following paragraphs provide you with a step-by-step reading and note-taking process that will maximize your chances of reading analytically.

Step One: Approach the Reading with the Right Mindset in the Right Environment

Photo of a classroom bulletin board with prompts to help students assess their effort and mindset.
Photo of a classroom bulletin board with prompts to help students assess their effort and mindset.
Photo courtesy of Ann Henderson

It can be easy to check out of a reading that on first blush seems dull or irrelevant, is hard to follow, or is on a complex subject matter. Don’t let yourself take the easy way out! Why? Because it will make your life as a writer considerably more difficult if you do. So, try to focus hard; know that the work you put in up front will pay off with time saved, less stress, and better results at the end of the project.

Create a single-tasking environment. Limit distractions by refusing to open your internet browser, IM, email program, or Skype. Turn off your computer’s modem/wireless receiver. Silence your phone. If you have to listen to music, make sure it’s music without words (you don’t want the language center of your brain to multitask when you’re working on new or complex material made entirely out of words). Better yet, try playing a white noise loop through ear buds to shut out distracting sounds.

Once you’ve created a single-tasking environment, work actively to pay attention, understand, and respond to the material being presented. Concentrate on understanding what is being conveyed no matter what deficiencies the piece of writing may have. Try to connect what you’re reading to what you already know (through personal experience or other reading you’ve done on the subject). Think about how what you’re reading possibly changes what you think about the topic on which you’re working. Assess the uses and limits of the ideas to which you’re listening for your own writing project.

Step Two: Use Pre-Reading Strategies

Survey the reading and develop questions and interests to guide your reading. Activate what you already know about the topics, whether from other reading or life experiences. When you survey a text you scan the table of contents, introduction, chapter introductions, headings, or summaries to pick up a shallow overview of the text. From your survey, develop a small set of initial questions or lines of thought that you’ll try to answer or think through as you read. Also locate areas of particular interest (topics or subtopics, but also specific page ranges) to which you’ll give your best attention.

Before reading the text carefully, consider what you already know (or think you know) about the topic of the text. By creating expectations about you’re reading, you’ll notice when the writer’s line of thought diverges from your expectations and see those moments as interesting, puzzling, troubling, ambiguous or suggestive, as moments with which you’ll need to come to terms.

Step Three: Mark up Your Texts

It is vital that you convert all readings about which you’re going to write from electronic to paper format. There is no electronic substitute for marking up a reading using a pencil. The simple act of making marks on the page focuses your attention and promotes an active and dynamic approach to your reading that is absolutely essential if you are to write effectively about what you read.

In the next paragraph, I’ll describe some basic marks and types of margin comments. But before I do, I want you to notice how they focus your attention more on the flow of the intellectual conversation, than on the specific pieces of information or materials the writers use to have the conversation. Remember, you’re reading to further the conversation, not merely to acquire and retain information. In order to participate in the conversation, you have to be able to use the cues (words) on the page to realize (literally, make real, three-dimensional) the exchange of ideas embedded in the text.

How do I mark up a text?

Here are some basic marks and margin comment types that will help you make the conversation come to life:

  • Underline essential and supporting questions and label which supporting questions go with each essential question;
  • Circle key concepts, then define concepts and terms in your own words in the margin;
  • Double-underline compelling passages and make margin notes about how you could use them in your own project;
  • Draw a Block around passages that are complicated, challenging or hard to understand, then on a separate sheet of paper, try to paraphrase them until you understand them;
  • Jot down the ideas, examples, and lines of inquiry that occur to you as you read;
  • Draw lines or make cross-references to forge connections and comparisons between sections of the reading, or between the current reading and others you have read previously;
  • Make margin notes about the uses and limits of particular concepts or passages for your own work.
Photo of a reading with a lot of annotations
Photo of a reading with a lot of annotations
Sample of Good Annotations

It’s particularly important to track the moves the writer is making. Is he or she offering background? Mark it. Defining terms? Mark it.

Here are some typical writers’ moves for the kinds of reading you’ll likely encounter in college:

  • Offering Background
  • Analyzing an Example
  • Interpreting an Example
  • Borrowing Expert Authority
  • Extending Another Writer’s Argument
  • Presenting Another Writer’s Argument
  • Countering Another Writer’s Argument
  • Making an Argument
  • Defining Terms
  • Describing a Method
  • Criticizing Another Writer’s Method
  • Revealing Tacit Values or Assumptions

Keeping track of a writer’s moves will enable you to better see the conversation in his or her text. By understand how he or she is making use of his or her sources, you can distinguish between what they say and what he or she says in response and consider your response to all the voices in the text.

What else should I do while reading?

Keep track of your intellectual response to the reading: Are you skeptical of some of the ideas or arguments presented? Does some way of approaching a problem or object of analysis seem particularly interesting or puzzling? Is something confusing or suddenly particularly clear? Write it all down. Keep track of the questions, ideas, problems, potential forwards/counters, personal experiences that percolate in your brain as you read. These will be the foundations on which you come to terms with the piece.

How often should I be taking notes?

You should probably be taking notes at least once or twice a page (but not much more) throughout the reading.

What should I do when I finish the reading?

When you’re finished reading, immediately write a healthy paragraph right on your printout (or on the first or last page of your chapter, right in the book if you own it) documenting both the basic substance of the writer’s project and line of thought and your initial intellectual responses to it. Record the essential ideas, concepts, or claims that you want to forward and/or counter, and explain how and why. Describe how reading this text changed your thinking (furthered it? nuanced it? redirected it? complicated it? confused it?).

Step Four: Transfer your Notes to a Word Processor After Reading

I recommend transferring notes only after you read, rather than as you go, because the act of transferring your notes from the page to the word-processor helps solidify your encounter with the text. You remember more of what you read and develop a deeper more sophisticated response to the text by rewriting your margin notes in the act of transfer.

What should I transfer to the word processor?

You don’t need to transfer everything. In fact, you want to be selective to start winnowing important stuff from trivial (even if interesting) stuff. Transfer everything that went into your “healthy paragraph” in step 3. Why? Because when you wrote that paragraph you started to develop your own response to the material. You began to integrate new ideas and information with old, and started to think about how your own project will be impacted by engaging this particular text in conversation.

As you revisit your notes in light of other readings and further work on your own piece of writing, you’ll add to, revise, rethink, and respond to this initial response (so be sure to record the date of your initial reading, and each time you revisit your notes). By tracking the development of your thought as you revisit and rethink your response to a reading in light of further reading and thinking, you’ll have a history of your engagement with the ideas and lines of thought that are the substance of the conversation you and all the other writers are having.

When you write your paper you’ll rely on the history of your encounter with other conversationalists to formulate your own entry into the conversation.

What else should I transfer?

After transferring that first “healthy paragraph,” transfer only the most important concepts (especially ones named with specialized terms), conversation-changing insights, passages, or examples, and lines of thought you might want to emulate or deploy in your own writing projects. Don’t worry about capturing data or statistics — they’re on paper and easily retrievable. If you need one or two specific pieces of information, go back and make a note on the first page of the reading indicating where exactly in the essay the data is (page number) and, here’s the crucial step, explaining the meaning and implications of the data. Unless you write down what the data means to you, you will surely forget what you found interesting, useful or troubling about the data.

Last Words

No doubt this seem an intensive approach to reading. It is. But remember, you’re not just reading to understand a fact, remember it, and select the right option on a multiple choice exam. You’re reading to respond to this text (and others) in writing and discussion. You need to cultivate and record a complex intellectual response to the text in order to read up to your professors’ expectations.

If you have any questions or comments, post them on, or tweet them to me @EricDrown.

I got tired of watching 25% of college students fail in their first year. So I decided to do something about it.

I got tired of watching 25% of college students fail in their first year. So I decided to do something about it.