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Critical reading techniques: Coping with difficult content

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At times during your module you may come across ideas that are difficult to understand. Try the following strategies to help you make sense of this material.

  • Set some time aside when you can work without interruptions.
  • Take a step back and look through headings and sub-headings that might signpost the direction the content is taking. Also look for summaries and conclusions that could restate the material in a way you find understandable.
  • Use a dictionary or subject-specific glossary to look up any unknown words.
  • Photocopy the text or print out the article so you can scribble on it.
  • If you have a question to answer, note it down and keep asking yourself how it relates to the piece.
  • If the text contains several specific themes use a key and write in the margin, e.g. p for politics or g for gender.
  • Try to write a few points in your own words about what you do understand.
  • Use a forum to ask for help from a fellow student - but always check that you do understand and agree with their interpretation.
  • Look online to see if the article or book has been reviewed by other people. Or look for overview books on the same subject - they might summarise the author's point of view. Once you can understand the basics, go back and look at the detail.
  • Don't assume the content is always correct. There might be a hidden agenda leading to bias - check the funding behind the article or find out why the article has been written.
  • Try saying the words in your head or aloud as a way of unravelling the meaning. Imagine that you are trying to explain it to someone.
  • You can also draw sketches or diagrams as a way of understanding.
  • If all else fails, leave it for a few days then come back to it.
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