How to read at university

Getting the most out of reading

when you've finished this page you will be able to...


Ever heard the phrase “reading for a degree”, or been asked “what are you reading at university?”. These phrases are not used as often as they once were, but the sentiment behind them is still true: to get a degree you need to read - an awful lot.

“That's fine”, you're thinking - “I can read perfectly well!”. There is, however, a difference between knowing how to read and knowing how to read so you learn from what you've read. The ability to read and learn at the same time is essential at university, as reading is at the heart of successful higher-level study. Sitting with an open book or scholarly journal is a great way to look studious, but how much are you remembering and learning from what you read?

To tackle the large volume of material you'll read at university, you need to develop an efficient and effective reading strategy. If your current reading strategy consists of moving your eyes across a page of text from left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom - before completely forgetting what it was you just read - read on and pick up some tips to help you learn from what you read.

Activity: how do you read at the moment? - 10 minutes

1. Read the extract from The Medicalisation of Everyday Life by Ben Goldacre in the box below, or if you prefer, an article you need to read, or would like to read, for your course.

This extract is taken from Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, 2008, published by Fourth Estate

When you've been working with bullshit for as long as I have, you start to spot recurring themes: quacks and the pharmaceutical industry use the exact same tricks to sell their pills, everybody loves a "science bit" - even if it's wrong - and when people introduce pseudo science into any explanation, it's usually because there's something else they're trying desperately not to talk about. But my favourite is this: alternative therapists, the media, and the drug industry all conspire to sell us reductionist, bio-medical explanations for problems that might more sensibly and constructively be thought of as social, political, or personal. And this medicalisation of everyday life isn't done to us; in fact, we eat it up.

In 2007 the British Medical Journal published a large, well-conducted, randomised controlled trial, performed at lots of different locations, run by publicly funded scientists, that delivered a strikingly positive result: it showed that one treatment could significantly improve children's antisocial behaviour. The treatment was entirely safe, and the study was even accompanied by a very compelling cost-effectiveness analysis.

Did this story get reported as front-page news in the Daily Mail, natural home of miracle cures (and sinister hidden scares)? Was it followed up on the health pages, with an accompanying photo feature, describing one child's miraculous recovery, and an interview with an attractive happy mother with whom we could all identify?

No. This story was unanimously ignored by the entire British news media, despite their preoccupation with antisocial behaviour, school performance and miracle cures, for one very simple reason: the research was not about a pill. It was about a cheap, practical parenting programme.

Meanwhile, for over five years now, newspapers and television stations have tried to persuade us, with "science", that fish-oil pills have been proven to improve children's school performance, IQ, behaviour, attention, and more. As I have documented with almost farcical repetitiveness in this paper, these so-called "fish-oil trials" were so badly designed that they amounted to little more than a sham. In the case of the biggest, "the Durham trial", the county council has refused even to release the results, which I have every reason to believe were unflattering.

I'm not desperately interested in whether fish-oil capsules improve children's IQ, and I say this for a number of reasons. Firstly, I'm not a consumer journalist, or a lifestyle guru, and I am not in the business of handing out "readers' health advice". Also, if you think about it rationally, any beneficial effects of fish oil on school performance will probably not be all that dramatic. We do not have an epidemic of thick vegetarians, and humans have shown themselves to be as versatile as their diets are diverse, from Alaska to the Sinai desert.

But I wouldn't start with molecules, or pills, as a solution to these kinds of problems. The capsules Durham are promoting cost 80p per child per day, while it spends only 65p per child per day on school meals, so you might start there. Or you might restrict junk-food advertising to children, as the government has recently done. You might look at education and awareness about food and diet, as Jamie Oliver recently did very well, without recourse to dodgy pseudo science or miracle pills.

But you might also step away from obsessing over food just for once and look at parenting skills, teacher recruitment and retention, or social exclusion, or classroom size, or social inequality and the widening income gap. Or parenting programmes, as we said right at the beginning. In fact, Durham's GCSE results, where the "trial" was performed, improved far more in the year before the fish-oil pills were introduced, after a huge input of extra funding and, more importantly, extra effort from local teachers and the community. But the media don't report stories like that: because "pill solves complex social problem", even if it's not true, is a much better angle.

2. When you've finished reading the article (or your own choice of reading matter), try to answer these questions:

  • Did you mark the article (using a highlighter, or underlining), or make notes as you read?
  • In 1 sentence, what was the article about?
  • From what you read, what 2 or 3 points stood out for you?
  • Do you think you'll be able to remember what you read tomorrow? How much do you think you'll be able to remember in a weeks time?

Recommended Further Reading

The activity above is intended to get you thinking about the effectiveness of your current reading strategy. If you are struggling to remember what you read, you're not getting the most out of your reading. But help is at hand, this topic will introduce you to some strategies to help you learn from and remember what you read.

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