Reading Comprehension for College Students

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Have you ever caught yourself reading on autopilot? Like operating a car, reading becomes second nature, and you might find yourself not fully comprehending the text’s whole meaning. However, reading without comprehension may occur even more subtly. You may read through a paragraph, think you understand it at the moment, but then immediately forget what it said.

To fully succeed in college, you need reading comprehension strategies. Utilizing these methods will help prepare you for test day. Reading also exposes college students to new viewpoints, helping them form arguments and choose credible sources.

Below, we discuss common challenges students face when reading, as well as strategies, techniques, and how to improve reading speed.

College-Level Reading Challenges



Reading academic texts, primary sources, and white papers requires flexibility. Readers must adapt their comprehension skills to different writing styles and topics. For example, when reading through a biology text, learners should pay attention to how the text relates to the study of living organisms. However, for a sociology text, readers should comprehend it through the lens of social relationships and interactions among individuals.

A heavy reading load also challenges college students, as professors do not account for lengthy reading requirements in other classes. As such, learners should practice time management skills. Attempting to read large quantities of text in one night does not set a person up for success.


Become a Time Pessimist


Although individuals should be optimistic in most areas in life, becoming a time pessimist may suit college students well. If you think a text should take you one hour to read, assume it will take longer and allot two hours. Some students find that they can not successfully complete a full-time college load with their current schedule after realistically managing course expectations. Fortunately, this may help students save money on failed classes.


Learn Unfamiliar Words


Certain texts challenge some students more than others. It takes time to learn economic jargon or math formulas. Do not shy away from writing down words you do not understand, and then move on. Come back to these words later and search for their meanings. Context clues often hint at the definition too.


Although we briefly discussed some tips for reading challenges in this section, we delve deeper into effective college reading strategies in the next section.

How to Study with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia

Effective College Reading Strategies



A quick Google search offers various types of reading comprehension tips. With so many resources available, it may feel overwhelming. Additionally, not every strategy works for every student. Start by implementing these nine methods for active reading first before attempting more specific reading strategies, which we discuss in a later section.

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  • 1. Find a Distraction-Free Zone

    While socializing in the student union may bring you joy, reading there does not suit everyone. The same goes for home, where the temptation to procrastinate makes scrolling social media or doing the dishes seem enjoyable. To prevent indulging in a distraction, consider heading to the library and temporarily disabling notifications.


  • 2. Preview the Text

    Doing a quick skim of the text allows you to form a general idea of the topic. Consider reading the headings and first sentence of each paragraph first as a preview. Then, read it a second time, but pay more attention to the details. Note what sections you stumble upon and fail to comprehend the first time, and pay extra attention the second time.


  • 3. Define Unfamiliar Terms

    Consider setting up a shortcut on your computer that allows you to access an online dictionary quickly. However, we suggest first consulting a textbook’s glossary for a context-driven definition. Write the terms down on flashcards if needed and quiz yourself.


  • 4. Identify the Main Idea and Themes

    Many learners retain information better if they take notes. Consider handwriting or typing out the reading material’s main idea in a bullet point format. Add to these notes during class lectures and review the final result before the exam. Using this method may prevent the necessity to reread the material a second time during the studying process.


  • 5. Write Questions and Answers

    If a question occurs to you while reading, don’t anticipate that you will remember it come lecture day. Simply write it down, and keep reading. You may find the answer in a later assigned chapter. If not, consider emailing it to your professor or asking it during the next class session.


  • 6. Summarize the Text

    In this step, try summarizing the main points of the reading into one paragraph and then narrow it down to one sentence. This will incorporate critical thinking skills and help your brain process the most vital information. Write this paragraph down, read it aloud, and memorize it. Then, do the same for the single sentence.


  • 7. Pay Attention to the Visuals

    Even if you don’t identify as a visual learner, never skip over the graphics. Many professors include exam questions that refer directly to a graph or photo caption. Spend a few moments studying the textbook images, and then close your eyes and try to recall what you just looked at from memory.


  • 8. Break Up the Reading

    We know you didn’t read it here first, but cram studying sessions fueled by procrastination rarely yield successful results. Do not try to read an entire unit’s worth of reading the night before the exam. Breaking reading up into 15-30 increments per evening often works best.


  • 9. Discuss What You've Read

    Grab a friend, grab a coffee, and talk about your new knowledge. Although you can discuss what you read with a classmate, you can also bring specific educational topics up in casual conversations with anyone. Also, do not underestimate the power of engaging in classroom discussions. Not only will you rake in those participation points, but you may also retain more information and hear interesting viewpoints.


How to Improve Reading Speed and Comprehension



To keep up with course demands while fulfilling other life responsibilities, individuals must practice their speed reading skills. However, reading too quickly without comprehension strategies does not usually yield successful results. In the following sections, we discuss five-speed reading methods that help students.


  • 1. Stay Focused

    Since most people have been reading since age five, many readers can think about other things while they speed read. However, a person must stay entirely focused on a text for complete comprehension, and anyone can train themselves to concentrate better and avoid multitasking. Reading quickly may prevent a mind from wandering, so speed reading can lead to better overall comprehension. Iris Reading offers a free comprehension and memory course to help learners develop both speed reading and comprehension skills.


  • 2. Skim the Text

    For starters, skimming a textbook helps prevent information overload. Additionally, sometimes a student simply cannot avoid cramming before an exam due to scheduling conflicts. Consider utilizing a skimming technique, like pointer finger reading. A school teacher popularized this reading method in the 1950s when she discovered gliding her finger across words allowed her to read 2,700 words per minute. Students may also benefit from previewing a text by skimming before doing a thorough reading.


  • 3. Read the Textbook Backwards

    While most textbook editors design the publication for front-to-back reading, reading from back-to-front presents a few benefits. For starters, most chapters include a summary section. Reading this part first allows a learner to capture the essential information while their mind still feels fresh.

    Additionally, textbook chapters typically include practice questions at the end. Glancing over these first offers hints at what to pay close attention to while reading.


  • 4. Impression, Association, and Repetition Method

    This method for enhanced reading comprehension considers that memory involves three components. These components include impression, association, and repetition. When something makes an impression on a person, they likely remember it. An individual can increase a reading’s impression on them by forming a mental image and exaggerating the scene in a shocking, memorable way.

    For association, readers should try and form connections about details that relate to their everyday life. To remember a date, a reader could relate it to a friend’s birthday. To utilize repetition, a reader should simply reread assignments.


  • 5. SQ3R Method

    Francis P. Robinson, an American educational psychologist, discovered this reading comprehension method in 1946. The acronym stands for survey, question, read, recite, and review. To utilize this method, learners should first skim headings, pictures, and bold words. Then, they should write down initial questions. Next comes the reading stage, which should fill in gaps and answer questions from the previous sections. Finally, reading aloud and then reviewing the sections further solidifies the acquired knowledge.


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

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

Sharan Green

Q. 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 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 may give up easily. If students get frustrated and they just give up, it affects their confidence and their self-esteem.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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, correspondence, or annual reports. I tell students, “Welcome to adulthood. Sometimes you have to do things you’re not crazy about.”

Q. 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.


Reading Comprehension Tools and Resources


  • Annotated Text This resource permits you to write in your textbook. Grab a pencil and circle sections of importance, underline terms you need to define, and write inferences as they occur to you.
  • Dartmouth's Reading Techniques This ivy-league research school offers tips for reading success. They break down the key to reading success in five steps and discuss factors that slow down reading pace.
  • Effective Paraphrasing Strategies Paraphrasing not only helps essay writers, it also helps readers. Walden University discusses the power of paraphrasing and paraphrasing strategies.
  • Interpreting Texts Critically Writers usually create with a motive. Although most college textbook authors write to inform, other writers create to persuade. This resource discusses how to read from a critical perspective.
  • Reading Comprehension: Making Inferences and Drawing Conclusions Most college courses require students to write critical essays to demonstrate reading comprehension. Refer to this resource to learn how to form conclusions and infer knowledge on readings that do not explicitly state a precise meaning.
  • Reading a Textbook for True Understanding Cornell University, another ivy league school, provides information on reading texts thoroughly. This resource even covers a formula for budgeting reading time.
  • Rewordify Rewordify instantly transforms complicated text into easy-to-understand terms. Save this site for challenging sentences or paragraphs. Although searching for context clues forms critical thinking skills, Rewordify saves time.
  • Snap&Read This reading comprehension tool costs $60 for a year. Consider trying the free trial, which offers a reading toolkit that works well with digital textbooks. Users can highlight sections to reread later, conveniently translate words from different languages, and even use a text-to-speech feature.
  • Staying Afloat: Some Scattered Suggestion on Reading in College This resource brings up a valid point: Professors often assign more reading than a student can read in a typical fashion. However, this doesn't mean learners cannot possibly comprehend the assignment. Scan this site to pick up on additional reading comprehension strategies.
  • Textbook Reading Systems On this page, Cornell outlines three common reading strategies for college students. This page also lists the acronyms for each, so learners may quickly remember the steps while reading.

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