This tip for succeeding in college may surprise you. Learn how to read. Yes, you made it to college, but that does not mean you know how to read, which now and in the work world is more about comprehension and interpretation. For some sciences, like biology, there may be a lot of memorization, but you also have to understand what you’re memorizing. So reading with access to a glossary or dictionary is wise. I cannot stress enough the importance of understanding what you’re reading. Plowing through and turning pages when you don’t get it does not make sense and wastes time. Stop and ask an upperclassman, a brilliant classmate, a TA, or your professor, if necessary. I have seen far too many students sit silently, not understanding a word of what is going on, and then blow the test, midterm, or paper.
If you’re reading in the humanities or social sciences, you’re looking for themes or key concepts, and evidence to support them. How does the author make her case? Look at the table of contents and even the index of a book, or at the introduction of an essay as the roadmap to where the author wants to lead you. Unlike when reading a mystery novel, it is okay to jump to the end to see what the conclusion is likely to be. Then read the middle, looking for the proofs and examples of what the author wants you to believe or understand. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can skim or read faster. Make note if you disagree with the author’s premises and why. Use whatever tools work for you to highlight key points. Underline, use yellow markers, take notes, bookmark or mark a page with a post-it note.
Some types of writing require close reading. Poetry demands careful reading, as, in that form, meanings are likely to be more subtly conveyed. For someone majoring in literature, it is assumed that you love to read, since you’ll do so much of it. And as you home in on a text, you are also looking for concepts. Close reading shows how the writer uses language, and conceptual reading reveals the themes.
Science writing conveys facts and process, and it is usually more concise. You have to know (often memorize) and understand the material, and be able to explain it clearly and cogently. Sometimes it helps to explain material to those who are not familiar with it as a way of testing your own understanding. Students who tutor often find it is really useful practice for themselves.
It helps you read in an unfamiliar or difficult field if you ask yourself why it is important and relevant. Understanding genes, for instance, may have relevance to your own health. An ancient Greek comedy, Lysistrata, for example, deals with women’s attitudes toward war when husbands and sons go off and may never return. This is a theme as relevant now as it was then.
Here is the key point about studying: Find the big or most important ideas in whatever you’re working on. It may be a concept, formula, or series of facts. If you mark up a text (you should own it and not plan to sell it later) or take notes, do not write down or underline everything—just the big ideas, those you must know. Underline words, not paragraphs (the exception is if you plan to quote a paragraph in a paper later; then I would just note it with a sticky, or bookmark it in your computer). Ask your professor what the most important concepts are, what you’re expected to master. (Do not ask what will be on the test–that is tacky and does not play well to the professor.)
Devise your own tools to help you retain material. You can make flash cards and carry them around to memorize formulas or vocabulary. Make notes in the margins of your class notes. (If you keep notes on your laptop, print them out so you can review them in your multitasking mode.) Keep an online diary for each class, where you record the key concepts you’re learning as you go, and how they hang together. Develop a one-page summary of that week’s material. If you’re a visual learner, make diagrams or pictures to help you remember material. It’s another way of summarizing. If you can’t summarize, then you have not learned or understood the material.
And this goes without saying. You can’t read the assignments if you have not bought the books. Reading is serious business for college success and success in life after so it is important to get it right now.
Excerpt from Chapter 8 of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide by Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD
Dr. Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide and a consultant on higher education, access and success.