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RMIT University Library - Learning Lab

Reading skills


How do I read efficiently?

Students can be easily overwhelmed by the amount of reading they are required to do at university. This short video gives you an overview of what makes an efficient reader and shows you how to become one yourself.

In some of your courses, you may find that you are faced with long lists of required readings. The truth is, you are not required to read every book, every journal article, or every research paper word-for-word. Instead, you need to learn how to survey, skim, and scan texts. This will allow you to get the most out of texts, whilst saving you a lot of time in the long run.

So, how do I survey a text? Surveying texts is straight-forward; in fact, you’re probably already using this reading technique without realising. To survey a text, you read the title, the cover blurb, the contents page, and the index. Then, you quickly look over the chapter headings.

How do I skim? When you’re skimming a text, you’re looking for just the main ideas.

How do I scan? When scanning, you’re looking for the important keywords in a text, you are quickly looking for the detail.

Let’s look at the example.

[Topic sentence] The functions of a team leader may often vary. [End topic sentence] [Linking word] Depending [end linking word] on the nature of the [Keyword] team, [End keyword] the [Keyword] leader [End keyword]  may function predominantly in [Keyword] many diverse roles, [End keyword] [Linking word] such as [End linking word] an overseer, a resource person, a setter of benchmarks for best practice by the [Keyword] team, [End keyword] a [Keyword] team [End keyword] builder, or take on all of these [Keyword] roles [End keyword] and others (Addison, 1996). [Linking word] Since [End linking word] the [Keyword] team leader [End keyword] will have [Keyword] varying [End keyword] skills in these [Keyword] roles, [End keyword] it is likely that they may not perform each task equally well. [Linking word] Therefore, [End linking word] it is reasonable to argue that the [Keyword] role [End keyword] of the [Keyword] team [End keyword] leader is not always necessarily an asset.

So, what next? So you’ve surveyed, skimmed, and scanned everything like you were supposed to. Now what? Often this is enough to get the main idea of a text, but sometimes you will need to read the text in detail. However, since you now know what the key ideas and keywords are, and you have a general idea of where to find this information, you’ll find it easier to read only the stuff that’s relevant.

So, let’s recap:

  • When we survey, we read the title, cover blurb, contents page, index, and chapter headings of a text.
  • When we skim, we just look for the main ideas of a text.
  • And, when we scan, we look for the keywords of a text.

For more information about reading efficiently, try the tutorial.


Active reading approaches

Don’t feel burdened by that big text book. Reading can be a smorgasbord rather than a weighty 16 course meal. This video will show you how to approach your required reading. It was originally designed for health science students but is relevant for all students.

You probably feel like this at exam time when you’re studying a subject such as anatomy or physiology, where the textbook is thick and the details seem to have no end. This is not surprising, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If you do feel like this, you need to start reading in a different way. It’s not necessary to read from the first line to the last as though all the text is equally important to your study.

You need to learn to skim and scan for the information you really need, and this means that you need to know what you are looking for from your course objectives. Skimming means to read the first sentence in each paragraph or section… And scanning means to look for the specific word that you need on the page.

When you read, you need to approach the text by getting a rough overview at first. You need to identify the key messages or the most important concepts first. On your subsequent readings, you can read around these central points, refining and defining the details as you go. You cannot and should not read to get a fine grain picture all at first. You need to set up the structures in your own mind before you can absorb the finer points. 

The question is: How fine a detail do you want to go down to? That will be determined firstly by the course objectives and the lectures, and secondly, the time you have available before the exam. So even if your study time is limited, it is better to have a general overview of the section, rather than having no information at all.

When you read, you need to read with purpose. In other words you need to have some question in mind. Unless you’re looking for something in particular, very little will stick with you as you wander through the text. What you are looking for should be given by your course objectives. If you’re fortunate to have objectives for each lecture or topic, then be guided by these by all means. If your course subjects are less specific, then you might use some of the reading objectives provided by the text.

Here is a page from the text. It details a section about capillaries. As you can see here, there is a reading objective that you should keep in mind while you are reading through the whole section. if you want to study the topic more comprehensively, look at the section headings and the subheadings, because these will flag the landmarks of the topic. And the main points relating to these headings will be mentioned early in that section.

If you want to refine your study even further, start looking at the topic sentences at the beginning of  each paragraph. Here, these are introducing the three types of capillaries and the small paragraph details special varieties of the continuous capillaries. And fortunately in this text, you are also guided by the keywords being printed in bold.

The language of a textbook might seem quite dense and inaccessible to begin with. This will be the case if you’re new to the subject of anatomy and physiology, and it may feel especially true if English is not be your first language, but do not despair! Even if the language seems complex, the concepts that are described are not necessarily as complex as they sound. And remember, you need to understand the information, not reproduce the language. In time, as you become more familiar with the new terminology, you will be able to use it more fluently.

Also, if English is not your first language and you feel much more comfortable working in your mother tongue, it is reasonable to make notes at first in your own language to consolidate your understanding. You will, however, need to follow this up with an English version very soon, because this is what you must use and understand in the exam.

Here is an example of translating the text into simple terms. Read and understand what the text is saying, and this may require several readings. Then, rewrite it in simple terms that are easy to understand. I cannot stress enough the value of rewriting it. Underlining or highlighting text only identifies where the information is sitting on the page. Making notes, and in your own words that is, forces you to internalise the information. By the time you get to revising before the exam, you will be able to put into practice some of the expressions and terminology that seemed so difficult at the start.

If you are a visual thinker, you could use mind maps to represent the information. Mind maps are great because you can always return to them and add detail around more and more bubbles on the map. Keep in mind, though, that for long answer questions or essay questions, you should still practice putting your ideas into sentence form.

In summary:

  • Do not try to learn everything on the page at once.
  • Start with an overview, and refine your understanding each time you review the information.
  • Do not read just for the sake of reading. If you look for nothing in particular, nothing in particular will stick.
  • Have a question in mind that you are seeking to resolve. This will act like a magnet that a lot of other information will stick to.
  • Finally, simplify the language at every stage so that you really understand what it is that you’re saying.


Reading skills basics
This resource covers much of the same information but with more depth. Learn about skimming and scanning strategies as well as how to organise the information you have just read.

Critical thinking - Critical reading
This tutorial provides you with the opportunity to develop your critical thinking skills. You will be taken through a nine-step guide to critical reading using an article of your choice or the article provided. At the end of the tutorial you will have read your chosen article, evaluated its strengths and weaknesses, made notes summarising the article, and developed skills in critical reading.