As a college student, you will eventually choose a major, or focus of study. In your first year or so, though, you’ll probably have to complete "core" or required classes in different subjects.
EXAMPLEEven if you plan to major in business, you may still have to take at least one science, history, and math class.
These different academic disciplines (and the instructors who teach them) can vary greatly in terms of the materials that students are assigned to read. Not all college reading is the same, so what types can you expect to encounter?
Probably the most familiar reading material in college is the textbook. These are academic books, usually focused on one discipline. Their primary purpose is to educate readers on a particular subject, such as Principles of Algebra or Introduction to Business.
It’s not uncommon for instructors to use one textbook as the primary text for an entire course. Instructors typically assign chapters as readings and may include any word problems or questions in the textbook, too.
Instructors may also assign academic articles or news articles. Academic articles are written by people who specialize in a particular field or subject, while news articles may be from recent newspapers and magazines.
EXAMPLEIn a science class, you may be asked to read an academic article on the benefits of rainforest preservation, whereas in a government class, you may be asked to read an article summarizing a recent presidential debate.
Instructors may have you read the articles online or they may distribute copies in class or electronically. The chief difference between news and academic articles is the intended audience of the publication.
News articles are mass media; they are written for a broad audience, and they are published in magazines and newspapers that are generally available for purchase at grocery stores or bookstores. They may also be available online.
Academic articles, on the other hand, are usually published in scholarly journals with fairly small circulations. While you won’t be able to purchase individual journal issues from a bookstore, public and school libraries do make these journal issues and individual articles available. It’s common to access academic articles through online databases hosted by libraries.
1c. Literature and Nonfiction Books
Instructors use literature and nonfiction books in their classes to teach students about different genres, events, time periods, and perspectives.
EXAMPLEA history instructor might ask you to read the diary of a girl who lived during the Great Depression so that you can learn what life was like back then. In an English class, your instructor might assign a series of short stories written during the 1960s by different American authors so that you can compare styles and thematic concerns.
Literature includes short stories, novels or novellas, graphic novels, drama, and poetry. Nonfiction works include creative nonfiction - narrative stories told from real life - as well as history, biography, and reference materials.
Textbooks and scholarly articles are specific types of nonfiction; often their purpose is to instruct, whereas other forms of nonfiction may be written to inform, to persuade, or to entertain.
Casual reading across genres, from books and magazines to newspapers and blogs, is something students should be encouraged to do in their free time, because it can be both educational and fun. It doesn’t require the reader to retain or regurgitate information; typically, casual reading is done for pleasure.
In college, however, instructors generally expect students to read resources that have particular value in the context of a course. Close reading is something students practice in school. It means reading with a closer lens in order to learn information, retain that information, and possibly use that learned information to support an essay or other written assignment.
Reading closely is part of what differentiates casual reading from academic reading. So why is academic reading beneficial?
Recall that close reading requires more engagement than just reading the words on the page. In order to learn and retain what you read, it’s a good idea to do things like circling key words, writing notes, and reflecting.
Actively reading academic texts can be challenging for students who are used to reading for entertainment alone, but practicing the following steps, which you were introduced to in the first unit of this course, will get you up to speed.
Still, in college, it’s not uncommon to experience frustration with reading assignments from time to time. Because you’re doing more reading on your own outside the classroom, and with less frequent contact with instructors than you had in high school, it’s possible you’ll encounter readings that contain unfamiliar vocabulary or don’t readily make sense.
Different disciplines and subjects have different writing conventions and styles, and it can take some practice to get to know them. Luckily, there are strategies that can support you as you progress through the above steps to tackle more challenging texts.
3a. Get to Know the Conventions
Academic texts, like scientific studies and journal articles, may have sections that are new to you.
EXAMPLEIf you’re not sure what an "abstract" is, research it online or ask your instructor.
Understanding the meaning and purpose of such conventions is not only helpful for reading comprehension but for writing, too.
3b. Keep Track of Unfamiliar Terms and Phrases
Have a good college dictionary such as Merriam-Webster handy (or find it online) when you read complex academic texts, so you can look up the meaning of unfamiliar words and terms as needed.
If you circle or underline terms and phrases that appear repeatedly, you’ll have a visual reminder to review and learn them. Repetition helps to lock in these new words and their meaning and get them into your long-term memory. The more you review them, the more you’ll understand and feel comfortable using them.
3c. Look for Main Ideas and Themes
As a college student, you are not expected to understand every single word or idea presented in a reading, especially if you haven’t discussed it in class yet. However, you will get more out of discussions and feel more confident about asking questions if you can identify the main idea or thesis in a reading.
The thesis statement can often (but not always) be found in the introductory paragraph, and it may be introduced with a phrase like "In this essay I argue that...." Getting a handle on the overall reason an author wrote something (to prove or explore something, for instance) gives you a framework for understanding more of the details.
It’s also useful to keep track of any themes you notice in the writing. A theme may be a recurring idea, word, or image that strikes you as interesting or important:
EXAMPLEIf you are reading a short story, you might make a note saying something like "This story is about men working in a gloomy factory, but the author keeps mentioning birds and windows. Why is that?"
3d. Make the Most of Online Reading
Reading online texts presents unique challenges for some students. For one thing, you can’t readily circle or underline key terms or passages on the screen with a pencil. For another, there can be many tempting distractions, like a quick visit to Amazon or Facebook.
While there’s no substitute for old-fashioned self-discipline, you can take advantage of the following tips to make online reading more efficient and effective:
Professors tend to assign reading from reliable print and online sources, so you can feel comfortable referencing such sources in class and for writing assignments. If you are looking for online sources independently, however, devote some time and energy to critically evaluating the quality of the source before spending time reading any resources you find there.
Find out what you can about the author (if one is listed), the website, and any sponsors it may have. Check that the information is current and accurate against similar information on other pages.
3f. Pay Attention to Visual Information
Images in textbooks or journals usually contain valuable information to help you more deeply grasp a topic.
EXAMPLEGraphs and charts help show the relationship between different kinds of information or data, like how a population changes over time.
Data-rich graphics can take longer to "read" than the text around them because they present a lot of information in a condensed form. Give yourself plenty of time to study these items, as they often provide new and lasting ideas that are easy to recall later (like in the middle of an exam on that topic!).
Source: This content has been adapted from Lumen Learning's "Reading Strategies" tutorial.