Reading at university

Advice and resources to help you develop effective approaches to reading.

As a student you will need to develop effective approaches to reading.  The purpose of reading when you study is to improve your knowledge and understanding, so you can develop your argument and conclusions. It is not to memorise the material. Therefore you will need to make notes to help you organise and find the relevant information when you need it.

Reading lists and prioritising

Course outlines and reading lists are usually made available before a course starts. Most lists will indicate which readings are key to understanding themes within the course (essential or recommended) and those which are supplementary (further reading). You should prioritise the essential and recommended sources so you are able to participate in class or online discussions i.e., fill in any gaps in your knowledge.

Some courses provide online Resource Lists which give you quick and easy access to course resources, including e-books and e-journals.  You can also use Leganto’s Resource Lists to keep your own list using My Collection.  Not all courses use Resource Lists, but you can browse the lists for other courses.

Resource lists

Library web pages

Library online resources

It is easy to spend a lot of time looking for material in the library or online that you don't then have time to read and analyse.  It is important you are actively thinking about what you are reading and making good use of it.

The basics

We think in terms of reading books or articles, but often we need to think about how we want to use them.  Having a strategy can help when you have a lot of material and a limited amount of time.

Think carefully about how much you really need to use and try to focus on what you really need to read. Have in mind a set of questions you want answers to.  Write these down as a short list and keep it with you.

Methods which focus on using books and other texts in a strategic focused way are likely to make the best use of your time. 

SQ3R: Reading and making notes from part of a text

SQ3R is a well-known method for reading and making notes.  It involves surveying a text and asking questions before you start reading.  It is a particularly good strategy to use for reading textbooks. Surveying helps you get an overview and select which parts are relevant. The reading process focuses on selected parts of the text which you read and recall in turns, keeping in mind your initial questions. Finally you review the notes you have made.

It is important to stick with recalling what you have just read and making notes without looking at the original text.  This is much more effective than passive reading. 

SQ3R for reading and making notes (pdf)        SQ3R for reading and making notes (Word rtf)

You should plan to revisit your notes and test yourself on them. A gap allows a little forgetting to take place and self-testing makes you recall the material you have been studying.

Using books and articles

If you find that you need to seek out a book you haven't read before or get to grips with an unfamiliar journal article, you need a way of knowing what the whole text is about. Think of using the text rather than reading all of it in the same depth. This involves surveying the text selectively by skimming and scanning. As with SQ3R, you need ask questions throughout the process of using a text.

Using a book (pdf)            Using a book (Word rtf)   

Reading a research paper (pdf)                Reading a research paper (Word rtf)

Reading on a screen

Some studies show that we may read text less effectively on a screen for a number of reasons. If you are reading from a screen you might want to make some notes on paper, to make sure you are identifying the main points from the text and will have a summary to come back to when it comes to writing an essay or studying for an exam.  

If you prefer to make digital notes, consider using the Critical reading form method (section below). Note making should be selective. Be careful when copying and pasting chunks from the original text into a document as it can make it harder to write about it yourself and in your own words. You also need to be sure you know which words belong to the author(s) and which are your own comments or annotations.  

One Note can be used to make digital notes and to annotate a pdf. You can also highlight text and add short notes to pdfs within Acrobat Reader.

IS One Note

To help you keep focused when you read online, switch off email and social media to prevent distractions.

Making comparisons

When you are using sources by different authors you will need to compare their main ideas. Summarising your notes by theme using a framework or grid can help you make connections by allowing you to compare and contrast these ideas on one sheet. You can make your own sheets or use our blanks below. Read the method before using the blank grids.

Compare contrast frame method (pdf)              Compare contrast frame method (Word rtf)

Compare contrast frame blank (Word docx)         Compare A B and C frame blank (Word docx)

Review what you've read

Take a few minutes to ask yourself questions after reading and studying any text.  What are the author's key ideas? How does this connect to what you already know about this topic?  Are there examples or case studies you can link to these ideas?

Most important of all, can you respond to the questions you set out with and what new questions has the reading stimulated?

Go further

Using your reading

In academia, your reading and research informs your argument, not the other way round. You may find that your argument changes as you read more and find new evidence. In your writing, however, you will need to organise your thoughts and present a logical argument for your reader. The Academic writing page has a strategy for Building your argument as you go.

Academic writing

One of the key features of academic writing is acknowledging how you have incorporated other people’s ideas into your argument. It is your responsibility to make it clear where each idea or piece of information comes from by referencing it (giving your sources). This is good academic practice and is standard in university level academic writing. You should check any guidance and information provide by your course for specifics e.g. what style to use. There is general information and guidance on our webpages Referencing and citations, and Good academic practice.

Referencing and citations

Good academic practice

Critical reading

As you move through your studies deeper and more critical reading will be required for assignments and assessments.  However this does not mean you have to read every word.

One way of doing this is to interrogate the source you are using a set of questions by creating and using your own critical reading form or using a notes record sheet grid.  This can help you avoid taking lots of detailed notes you might not use. 

Critical reading form method (pdf)          Critical reading form method (Word rtf)

Reading notes record sheet (pdf)             Reading notes record sheet (docx)

Useful links

To help you get started with the Library, the Academic Support Librarians have developed LibSmart I and II, Learn courses to help you develop and enhance your digital research skills and capabilities.


If you are writing a literature review you will find advice about how to go about managing your reading for this on our Literature review page.