Okay, maybe you don’t feel that way, but I know I did during my first semester of grad school. I remember that some of the readings for my cognitive development class in particular felt as though they were written by people intentionally trying to confuse me.
Most of my advice is targeted at students in HDFS or similar social science programs, that predominantly assign journal articles and chapters. I know that other disciplines frequently assign books, and I know that journal articles in physical science disciplines are often substantially shorter than in the social sciences, so advice may differ.
Hopefully, you first chose your courses well, so that you are taking courses that suit your future plans. That definitely helps with motivation
I recommend reading some other posts on the topic, including Miriam Sweeney, and Sink or Swim in the APA GradPsych Magazine.
Based on these two posts, as well as my own experiences and mentoring, I recommend these strategies:
- Plan by the week: Plan out your reading across all courses a week at a time. There are going to be weeks where you have more or less for certain courses. Figuring out the ebb and flow at the start of each week is going to help you manage your time. You don’t want to approach each day thinking, what do I need to read for my family seminar tomorrow? You want a bigger picture.
- Think about the order: Don’t just read the papers in the order they appear on the syllabus for that week. When I teach my grad seminars I try to recommend an order to read things in. Even if your instructor doesn’t do the same, you can get a sense by looking at the readings. Read theory chapters/articles first, then review chapters/articles, and finally any empirical articles. If many empirical papers are assigned, group them either by date (e.g., read older/foundational papers first, newer ones second) or if the week’s readings cover a range of topics, read them by topic (e.g., read the depression articles first, then the anxiety ones).
- Read strategically: Sweeney recommends reading strategically, and I agree with that point at a general level. However, I don’t agree with the order she recommends, where she recommends reading the discussion before the methods and results. I would find that order utterly baffling. I general I think getting an overall sense of the paper by looking at titles, and then reading in order, works best for me. Don’t skip the abstract because it seems redundant – it gives you a great overview of the paper.
- Take notes: I can’t emphasize this point enough. There are many different formats by which you might take notes –annotate a PDF on your computer; open a Word file and take notes there; handwritten notes; post it notes on a print out (does anyone do this anymore?). But whatever you do, take notes as you read. If you find anything confusing, make note of it. Think about things you read that would make good discussion points, so when you go into the class discussion, you already have ideas of things to say. Although I haven’t read for courses in a long time, I can share that when I read for book club, I often think of interesting observations, but if I don’t write them down, they are utterly gone by the time we meet.
- Annotate your notes: Perhaps my most important point. I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating. When you take notes, make sure you include annotation with citations. If you are taking notes simultaneously from multiple articles, keep annotations throughout (just jot down the source). If you are reading one article at a time, just list the article on the top of the page. But if you do any cutting and pasting, or typing/jotting word for word, put it in quotes so that your future self knows that the words are not your own. Otherwise, you may one day use these notes to write a paper/your comps/a lecture, and not remember the words aren’t your own. I’ve seen this happen. A lot.
- Read critically: Don’t just jot notes on what you read; jot notes on what you think is unclear, or incorrect, or a misinterpretation.
- Make connections: If you see connections to other readings, either from the same week or from prior weeks, definitely make note. These are the kinds of observations that instructors generally love.
- SQ3R: Azar recommends the SQ3R method: survey, question, read, recite, review. I haven’t used this method, though it seems if you have the time for it, it would be useful. I can’t see using it for 10+ readings a week, but there may be a couple key ones where using this technique proves particularly useful.
- Skimming: As a professor I can’t tell you that it’s ever okay to skim a paper instead of reading it thoroughly. But, I can say that skimming is better than not reading it at all. Don’t skim all of the papers for one class, but if you’re in a huge time crunch and need to skim one or two out of a long list, you’ll probably live. Just be strategic about which ones you skim vs. read thoroughly.
- Understanding stats: There are going to be times you don’t understand all of the statistics in an empirical article. There are certainly times I don’t understand all of the statistics in articles I read (or review for journals). It’s okay. See what you can get out of the results section, and read the discussion even more carefully than usual to make sure you understand the findings in general.
- Study groups: If you’re struggling with the content of readings, finding other grad students to discuss papers with in advance of class can be useful. It’s likely you can help each other with things the other doesn’t understand.
- Take breaks: Please take breaks. It will improve your productivity, but also your wellbeing.
- Take breaks for your eyes every 15 minutes or so, even if it’s just 15 seconds of looking away from the computer screen. Look out a window or close your eyes for a bit. Looking at your phone or Facebook doesn’t count as an eye break.
- Take breaks for your body every hour or so. If you’re at the lab/office, step away from your computer and go for a walk, even if it’s around the building. If you’re at home, stand up and stretch, do a down dog, figure out something to get out of the same position. I’m very bad at remembering to do so. I’ve worked with people who actually set their time for every hour to remind them to stand up and move. I will now do the same for myself, so I can practice what I preach. Done.
- Take breaks for your brain. You can take a short break to chat to another student. Make a phone call. Go for a walk outside. Exercise. Make sure that every day you have a longer break to do something you love, so you can return to work refreshed.
- One size doesn’t fit all: Strategies that work for one student might not work well for others. Sometimes, you need some trial and error to sort out your best strategy.
What other reading strategies do you suggest to new graduate students?
“ How to Read for Grad Classes, Pass Classes, and Still Sleep first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on August 30, 2018.”