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Improving Your Reading Comprehension Skills in College Keep Your Pen Handy, Look Up New Words — and Don’t Get Discouraged

You know how to read, of course. But do you know how to read well enough to ace your college classes? They’re two different skills. As you might have surmised from the size of your bookstore tab or the massive stacks in the school library, reading comprehension is crucial to the academic success of college students. In college, you’re required to make sense of difficult material, much of it written in technical, less-than-clear language. Even comparatively easy reading material will test your powers of concentration. Our guide calls on experts to coach you through the challenges you’ll face as you tackle college-level reading assignments.

Meet the Expert

Sharon Green Coordinator of Instructional Services, Niagara University’s Academic Success Center

Written By:

Reading Demands in College

The reading assigned in high school was just a warmup. New college students likely will find that professors load them up with more reading than they have been assigned in the past, and many of those assignments will be a challenge. What’s more, students will be expected to bear greater responsibility for keeping up with reading assignments and making sure they understand the material. At this level, it will no longer suffice to simple read and regurgitate material.

“You have to read a lot more independently and analytically,” says Sharon Green, coordinator of instructional services at Niagara University’s Academic Success Center. Assigned reading in college courses tends to vary widely. College-level reading assignments often veer toward the technical — economics texts loaded with unfamiliar jargon, biology primers stuffed with facts, advanced math books filled with formulas. History books and literature might seem easier tasks, but these seemingly simple reading assignments can pose their own challenges. Even if the writing style is easy to digest, authors tend to assume a fundamental familiarity with language and life that college students might or might not possess.

The wide array of writing styles requires students to constantly adapt their attitudes and approaches toward reading. “Students need to be able to adjust their reading to different styles of writing,” Green says. “Sociology textbooks tend to be written on a more generally accessible level. Compare that to a biology textbook, where it’s just fact after fact after fact.” In contrast to reading students may have done in the past, college-level assignments will prove a greater test of vocabulary and foundational knowledge, not to mention a student’s ability to draw inferences and ask critical questions.

With a full course load, students may quickly find that their reading assignments are too demanding for the leisurely pace they might have grown accustomed to in the past. That means they will need to read quickly. At the same time, college reading material often is too dense to simply breeze through — good luck absorbing a chemistry text at a glance. The one-two punch of high volumes and difficult material means students should have a strategy for absorbing difficult material quickly. Successful college students learn how to read efficiently. Among the useful approaches are prereading, astute note-taking and an ability to speed or slow their pace of reading as they peruse different types of material. What’s more, to earn As, students also need to master levels of focus and concentration that have eluded them in the past.

Top 15 College Reading Strategies

So how can students get the most of their limited time in order to read and retain challenging, college-level texts? We’ve drawn these 15 tips for reading comprehension from Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning, St. Mary’s College of California and the University of Oklahoma, along with reading experts Sharon Green and John Bean.

  • Find a distraction-free zone.

    Read in a quiet place, and don’t answer text messages or respond to social media posts.

  • Before you start reading, ask yourself prereading questions.

    What’s the topic? What do you already know about it? Why has the instructor assigned this reading now?

  • Identify and define any unfamiliar terms.

    It’s faster to breeze past new words, but savvy readers take time to look up unknown words.

  • Look for the main idea or thesis.

    Mark this text with brackets or an asterisk. Pay close attention to the introduction and opening paragraphs, which often reveal this information.

  • Write questions — and answers.

    As you peruse a textbook, write queries in the margins, then answer those questions in a separate notebook. This approach helps to maintain concentration; while reading, consider whether the text answers each question.

  • Change titles and subtitles to questions that you then seek to answer.

    For instance, the McGraw Center suggests that the section heading “The Gas Laws of Boyle, Charles and Avogadro” could be changed to “What are the gas laws of Boyle, Charles and Avogadro?”

  • Try the “what it says” exercise.

    Read a paragraph, then write a sentence summarizing the main point that paragraph conveys. Also think about “what it does” — does the paragraph back up the author’s thesis, introduce an opposing view or go in another direction?

  • Write a summary.

    This is a longer version of “what it says.” Write a couple of paragraphs that condense and restate an essay or chapter in your words. You can only do this if you really understand what you’ve read.

  • Write your own exam question based on the reading.

    This exercise gives students a chance to think like professor.

  • Describe what you have learned to someone else.

    Try explaining aloud what you have been studying. This exercise will move the material from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. It also will let you know if you understand the material.

  • Break up the reading into bite-sized sections.

    If an assignment seems especially daunting, break it into smaller, more manageable pieces. And when your attention wanders, stand up and take a quick break.

  • Start with the toughest assignments.

    Tackle the hardest reading first, particularly if you struggle with procrastination.

  • Build in rewards.

    After slogging through a difficult assignment, reward yourself with a break — have a snack or a chat with a friend.

  • Avoid rereading.

    There’s just too much reading in college to read one assignment multiple times. Reading the same passage over and over also is an inefficient use of time. By concentrating more deeply, you can absorb information the first time, without rereading.

  • Pace yourself.

    Reading dense, difficult material is hard work. Understand that reality, and manage your time accordingly. Few students can read effectively for hours at a time, so schedule regular breaks.

Expert Q&A: Tips to Set Yourself Up for Success

Sharon Green

Coordinator of Instructional Services, Niagara University’s Academic Success Center

How is reading in college different from reading in high school?

There’s a lot more of it, and it has to be done, rather than simply should be done. In high school, there’s a lot of memorizing of facts. In college, it’s different. If a professor assigns something, you’re expected to read it. What I’ve been hearing from students is that when they were in high school, the teacher would assign a book and no one would read it. So the teacher would wind up reading aloud to the class. When that happens, students don’t get the practice, they don’t get the exposure to language and they don’t get the time to read and reflect. If they don’t have the practice, and they don’t have the exposure, they might give up easily. If students get frustrated and they just give up, it affects their confidence and their self-esteem.

What’s the biggest challenge for students moving up to college-level reading?

Many students just haven’t practiced. If students haven’t read much before college, their background knowledge is limited. There’s a significant drop-off in newspaper reading. That’s a problem because the more you read, the more language you’re exposed to. I’ve read about students spelling valedictorian as “valid Victorian.” They’ve never seen the word before. It almost doesn’t matter what you read as long as you read. People who don’t want to read Hemingway might be able to read “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Some people will say, “That’s kind of trashy.” I don’t care if it’s trashy. Practicing makes you better.

What’s the biggest reading mistake students make?

There are a few. Avoidance of reading is a big problem. Some of it occasionally has to do with a learning disability. Some of it has to do with attention span. Most students just haven’t had the practice. Reading is a skill you build up over time. Another one is that students will see unfamiliar words, and they just skip over them without looking up the words. They admit it. I tell them, “You’re walking around with a dictionary in your pocket. Why don’t you just look up the word on your phone?” But if students don’t know what the word means, they miss a lot of meaning, and that translates into errors on tests.

Some material is going to be difficult for anyone, even avid readers. Say my professor assigns a complicated legal argument or a highly technical paper. How do I approach the assignment?

Attitude is very important. If you’re going to read something difficult, just tell yourself, “This is going to be the best thing I’ve ever read.” Keep an open mind, and stay positive. Break it up into chunks. Take a break — get up and move around every few minutes. Not everything is going to be fun. Keep your ultimate goal in mind. A lot of students are in college because they want good jobs, and when you’re in the workplace, you’re going to have to read things you’re not crazy about, whether it’s technical material or correspondence or annual reports. I tell students, “Welcome to adulthood. Sometimes you have to do things you’re not crazy about.”

How about note-taking while reading? What tactics should students use?

Too many students want to highlight. Highlighting is OK, but it can be coloring after a while. Writing a little summary in the margin is much more effective because it forces you to put the material in your own words. If you realize you can’t summarize a section, that tells you to go back and read it again.

Improving Reading Comprehension and Speed

Midway through a semester, students are likely to feel overwhelmed. Four or five professors at a time may load a student up with reading. Plus they’ll have papers to write, classes to attend and tests to study for. It’s hard enough to find time to bathe, let alone slog through a pile of textbooks. This is when the ability to read efficiently becomes crucial. Knowing how to consume textbooks is a key skill.

First, learn the magic of devoting a few minutes to prereading. In this tried-and-true approach, three to five minutes are first spent looking over a textbook chapter before the student really digs in, Green says. Skim through the reading material, absorbing titles and headings and making note of any boldfaced words and charts or other graphics. If there are no subtitles, read the first and last paragraphs. This short exercise can help a person know what to expect from the material and therefore boosts comprehension and retention.

In an article on StudyRight, Skylar Anderson offers another tip: Read textbooks backward. It may sound counterintuitive, but Anderson argues that tackling a textbook as if you’re reading Harry Potter is a waste of time. After all, textbooks are written to convey information, not to entertain. Students should start with the study questions at the end of the chapter and see how many they can answer. After that, read the conclusion, then proceed upward through the chapter to the introduction.

While it can be tempting to try to absorb material by reading it aloud, Green is not a fan of what reading experts call “subvocalizing.” “It slows you down,” she says. “Another problem with reading aloud is you’re reading words in isolation. You’re not understanding the bigger meaning.” She suggests skipping the one-word-at-a-time approach that reading out loud will force; instead, opt for the faster-paced strategy of silently absorbing many words. While reading every word aloud is a waste of time, when a student is stuck on a difficult passage, reading experts insist that reading out loud can help with getting unstuck. A guide from Baylor University’s Academic Support Programs says occasional vocalizing can help with remembering dense material.

Note-taking is another key to comprehension and speed. With effective notes, a student can summarize a chapter in a way that’s individually meaningful while saving the time of re-reading. Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning suggests that for particularly difficult material, try creating a visual representation of the material — a flow chart, a diagram or a map that illustrates key concepts. The idea is to connect important ideas in a memorable way. Another popular approach is known as SQ3R, which stands for survey, question, read, recite and review. An alternative approach is impression, association, repetition. This three-step strategy from Lifehacker promises to help you recall what you’ve read.

Tools You Can Use

  • Dartmouth’s Reading Techniques

    The Ivy League school’s page links to videos and offers a useful advice for more thorough studying, varying reading rate and more.

  • Reading checklist

    Sharon Green’s list offers reminders of what to do before, during and after reading.

  • Quizlet

    This online tool lets you create flash cards, quizzes and other study aids.

  • Study Guides and Strategies

    This site offers a variety of tips for reading, writing and managing your time.

  • Interpreting texts critically

    This guide from Empire State College includes worksheets to guide students through critical analysis to help them becoming more discerning readers.

  • 10 Tips to Improve Your Reading Comprehension

    In this 13-minute YouTube video, an instructor talks about reading. Among them are such tips as: Always use a pen, sometimes read aloud and don’t feel guilty about skipping parts of books.

  • Guide to Reading Primary Sources

    The University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Learning Resources created this primer on getting the most from letters, journals, newspaper articles and other primary sources.

  • Are you an active or passive reader?

    This quick test from City College of San Francisco helps you identify students’ reading strengths and weaknesses.

  • Rewordify

    This free tool promises to modernize arcane language — for instance, by translating “four score and seven” to the more manageable 87.

  • Snap & Read

    This Google Chrome extension rephrases complicated text into simpler language.

  • Inspiration

    This visual learning tool lets students create graphic organizers, concept or mind maps, webs and more in order to help make sense of reading materials.

More on Reading Comprehension

  • Textbook Reading Systems

    Cornell University’s Learning Strategies Center provides details about the SQ3R method of textbook reading, which stands for survey, question, read, recite and review. It also describes the P2R and S-RUN methods.

  • Staying Afloat: Some Scattered Suggestions on Reading in College

    Swarthmore College provides this guide for finding “signposts” that will guide readers through textbooks. And there’s this sage analysis: “Professors assign more than you can possibly read in any normal fashion.”

  • The SQ3R Textbook Studying Method

    This brief overview from City College of San Francisco offers a slightly different guide to SQ3R.

  • 21 Tips for Effective Textbook Reading

    Sharon Green’s primer serves up useful advice for students to get the most out of their reading.

  • Reading College Textbooks

    This guide from Brookhaven College provides an overview of tips for tackling those weighty tomes.

  • Reading Comprehension: Making Inferences and Drawing Conclusions

    Cuesta College lays out tactics for active reading.

  • Effective Paraphrasing Strategies

    Restating the material in one’s own words is the essence of note-taking. This Walden University guide walks students through the process.

  • Summarizing

    Green offers this guide to processing material and rewriting it in one’s own style.

  • Reading Texts: Marking & Underlining

    Don’t read without a pen in hand, said Ben Franklin … and most reading experts. Study Guides and Strategies offers these tips for how to use that pen to aid in reading comprehension.

  • Annotating text

    Bucks County Community College created this guide to properly marking up a textbook, along with an example.

  • Textbook Reading Strategies

    In this guide, Baylor University’s Academic Support Programs coach students through reading and making sense of reading assignments.

  • Making Sense of Confusing Sentences

    Academic authors often use complex vocabulary and sentences. This guide helps students make sense of writing that’s wordy or challenging.

  • Reading Strategies

    This guide from Oregon State’s Academic Success Center includes an intriguing tip: If you find yourself bogged down in a certain section, take a moment to figure out why.

  • Reading a Textbook for True Understanding

    Cornell College in Iowa created this study guide to aid students in reading texts. One bit of advice: Expect to spend five minutes on a single page of a textbook.