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Postgraduate study skills: Reading efficiently

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Once you have identified the sources that you think you want to read, go through them briefly to make sure that they are indeed relevant to your studies. There is no point in reading a source comprehensively until you are sure the material fulfils your requirements.

Scanning

Scanning is the technique used, for example, when trying to find a name in a phone book. It usually involves running your finger across and down the page to try and identify salient words. By scanning the papers you have accessed you should soon be able to see whether or not they are relevant to your studies. Don't discard those that aren't relevant at this stage. They may be useful later.

Skimming

Skimming is the next stage of the process in deciding whether or not a particular piece is worth reading more thoroughly, as it requires you to engage with the text a little more. There are two levels of skimming.

  • At the basic level you should read the abstract, summary or overview to get an insight into the purpose and the findings of the document, then read the headings and the subheadings to see how the information is organised. By reading any conclusions you can make sure that the outputs from the piece can contribute to your understanding.
  • You may still feel that you need a better understanding of what the authors are trying to do before you read the text in its entirety. Here it may help to read the first paragraph of each section, or even to read the first two lines of each paragraph. Doing this will make it easier to decide whether or not to read the entire text.

Gutting the literature

This approach helps you to analyse how useful a book will be and to select material for a specific purpose. You need to

  • establish and evaluate the value of the book by looking at its aims, introduction, contents and index
  • identify passages that are important to your aims
  • skim read these sections, as well as the ones before to get an idea of context
  • read the chosen sections in depth.

This is a fairly ruthless approach, but one which helps you to be selective.

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