If you spend a lot of time reading for school, you might be doing it too much! How can this be? Everything you do should be in pursuit of a result. Whether it’s a grade, skill, knowledge, or the challenge, if you can’t identify the benefit of doing something, you probably wasting your time doing it. When you get a stack of reading for class, you can easily decide it’s important because the class demands it. If you’re writing a research paper, you’re going to read books relevant to the topic in write something coherent or stack up citations. Unless you really challenge the value of every single article, chapter, and paragraph, you’ll end up reading far more than you need to, drowning in notes, and having a few dozen wasted citations.
Reading weekly for class
I had some ambitious professors in college. Often, they’d assign a thick book for a week of reading, and we’d be expected to show up on Monday ready to discuss it in depth. Even worse, these were small classes, which meant no hiding. With an entire courseload, I’d sometimes have many books and articles to power through from week to week. I probably could have made the time to read every page, but it would have been crippling to a whole lot of other priorities. I was skipping out on social engagements and cutting into my precious sleep. So what’s a student to do?
Figure out what the expectations are
One can’t talk about a whole book in class every week. What details did the professors focus on? What kinds of questions did they want answered? In my case, it was generally, “What is the author arguing and how would you support/oppose it?” Pay attention to how readings are actually used in class and you can prepare accordingly.
Quickly review to read what contributes to those expectations
Spend a few minutes in the table of contents before diving into the rest of it. There will be many parts of the book that are wholly irrelevant, for a lot of reasons—many books are articles that have been expanded to “book size” and add a bunch of parts that don’t cover the main point, or many chapters go very deep into a certain argument or the methodology. You might not need this.
Skim where you can
For a one-time or two-time discussion of a book, you can likely skim some paragraphs to get the main idea, jot down the idea with the citation, and then move on. Nobody expects you to memorize it, and you’ll impress people rather than embarrass yourself if you go back to the right parts of the book to pull up the details in the class discussion because you took good, quick notes.
By doing all this, I was able to cut reading down significantly. Try it out on a small assignment as a low-risk experiment. If it wasn’t enough, you can be honest and say you’re working on your reading habits for better retention. You’re using the book as a tool to prepare you, but when you blindly read all the pages because they happen to be there, you’re doing it to say you got it done, not to really learn.
Reading for a research paper
As a TA I graded lots of research papers, and the number of completely useless citations I saw was mind-boggling. Students frequently put in loads of citations—either consciously or subconsciously—to prove that they did a lot of research and therefore put in effort. This can be irritating for your professor trying to figure out what point was being made with the citation and potentially affect your grade. Putting in a bunch of research to fill up space won’t make you look impressive. It will only solidify that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Skimming comes in handy a lot here too so you can quickly find out which sources will really be worth your time. The only question your professor is asking is whether your paper answers the question compellingly and clearly, not extensively.
Choose your thesis early on
When you know what you want to say, you’ll cut out a whole lot of reading that’s ultimately irrelevant to your final point. As soon as you can (hopefully within about half an hour of the paper announcement), pick what you want to say and stick to it. Not comfortable picking a thesis before mulling over all possibilities? Remember there are many sides to any issue, and unless this paper is going to be your magnum opus, you should see it as an exercise in your writing skills, rather than a global declaration of your morality.
Start with Wikipedia
There is probably some professor out there reading this who’s grinding their teeth right now but hear me out: Wikipedia is actually a great place to kick off your research. Can you and should you cite it? Heck no. But it gives you a great starting place to get some of the overall key points, know which specific questions to answer or facts to get, and even get some citations that could send you down the right rabbit hole. From there, you can find more reputable sources to confirm the information and use it officially in your paper. I always start here.
Pick your reading based on questions
Build your outline based on your thesis and your skimming of Wikipedia. While you’re building the outline, identify the most important questions you need to address and the answers you’ll need to flesh it out. Each question and solution should be associated with an article, part of an article, chapter, book, etc. When you shop around for reading and research materials, match them to these needs. Challenge every reading by asking yourself, “How is this contributing directly to my paper?”
Get back to skimming
Know where all the main points in the book or article are. Take notes with an initial skimming of the piece and then come back later. Citations are pulled most efficiently when you pull them the moment you need them to back up an argument—this way you only mine for the citations you need, rather than collecting a few hundred and deciding what to do with them later.
This helped me crank out great papers in record time. I wasn’t “doing less” as far as building understanding and evidence—I was wasting less time reading what didn’t apply directly to the paper itself. I was able to spend more time thinking about the key message and crafting.
If you don’t gut-check, you might skim over this huge opportunity to recover wasted time and leave hours every week on the table. So challenge yourself for all of your academic pursuits! What do you really need to do to learn and succeed? What work are you doing unnecessarily simply because it’s in front of you? Good luck!
If you cut down on your school reading, you’ll have so much more time for fun reading—like all the books under our “book recommendations” tag!