Essays Learning

Academic reading – what to read and where to start

Reading. You’ve been doing it most of your life, but reading for your academic work can feel like you need a whole new skill. You don’t! But you do need to think about how you read, and that can be really difficult when you’ve been doing something for so long. But it’s worth the effort, and here we have some tips to help you become a more effective and efficient academic reader.

Where to start

No matter how long you’ve been studying or researching, sometimes the amount of literature available can be overwhelming.

But, you have to start somewhere:

  • Know the key researchers in your chosen field or topic – and start with them. Don’t just read their publications look at the bibliographies, the acknowledgements to see who they are quoting and working with.
  • Make sure you are familiar with all the Library search facilities and services, (the online workshop knowing where to look is a really good start).
  • Look at My Learning Essentials. There are online resources and workshops in everything; from reading critically, to using different types of material, to how to use specific databases.

Critical reading

Now you’ve made a start, you’ll need to look at what is most relevant to your current piece of work.  There will be lots of things of interest, but you really need to keep focused on the specifics of your work. Surrounding reading is useful, but don’t think you have to read everything vaguely related to your topic or you’ll be back to square one with an unmanageable amount of literature.  You need to approach literature in a methodical way that will help you decide quickly whether or not it’s useful:

  • Check the publication date. Older information isn’t necessarily useless, but you do need to be aware of the date and look for later contributions or more recent revisions.
  • For journal articles, read the abstract. A well written abstract can really give you an indication of how useful the piece is.
  • For books, look through the contents and the index to get a sense of what the book covers. Skim read the introduction to understand the authors approach.
  • Look at the conclusions; don’t see this as a short cut to understanding the author’s arguments, but it should help you see whether or their arguments are relevant to you.
  • Remember the basics when looking at new information – ask questions about reliability and objectivity as well as relevance. The Library‘s online workshop on evaluating sources is really useful – even it’s just a reminder. Also see RMIT’s really useful guide to Critical Reading.
  • Learn to scan or skim read effectively. Make notes that remind you why you found the piece useful (or not!) Remember though, once you’re ready to fully engage with a text it’s better to read at a slower pace and really try to think about and understand the information.