Reading time 2 minute read

So it’s time to start your research project, dissertation or thesis – but you don’t know where to start. The natural instinct is to start reading. Reading strategies don’t always come naturally to students and this is a very important area that can sometimes let you down…

In this post I will give you some reading strategies that are useful for any stage of your academic life, but are particularly useful when undertaking a big project such as a research project, dissertation or thesis.

Why do I need to read?

Regardless of what research topic you select, it is important that you have good background knowledge of the area that you are investigating. You will also need this when writing your literature review – see my post ‘how to write an awesome literature review for more on this topic. A good place to start is to read the general literature on your topic that is available, and then narrow it down to the more specific areas that you are looking at as part of your research project. In order to do this, you will need to identify some appropriate reading strategies.

Reading strategies

There are three main steps in reading.

  1. Identify the various published materials that are available on the topic of interest
  2. Gather the relevant information, either in hard copy from the library or through online sources
  3. Read the material

Step One: Identifying relevant material

Sometimes half the challenge when looking at reading strategies can be finding the reading material in the first place. Here are some places that you can look:

  • The Library Catalogue
  • Online Databases
  • Use keyword searches on search engines such as Google
  • If too many sources are found, use the advanced search function
  • Search on Google Scholar/Images/Books/News etc
  • Work through the references given in the material that you read 

Step Two: Gathering the relevant material

Once you have located reading material relevant to your topic, you need to gain access to it. You can try the following sources:

  • Library books available for loan
  • Reference copies to be used in the library
  • E-books
  • Access online databases
  • Download full-text journal articles
  • View/download market intelligence reports

Step Three: Reading the material

The last step is to read all of the material that you have collected, ensuring that you take in as much as possible and discard what is not relevant. Some things to remember include:

  • Strategies for reading are important
  • After starting the literature search, you can find yourself swamped by the volume of reading material found
  • You need to focus your reading time on the most relevant material
  • You must read widely, depth and breadth, but focus on the most relevant material
Reading strategies


Reading research relevant to your project

It is important that your reading strategies guide you to what is most relevant to your research project. This will enable you to make the best use of your time. Some things for you to consider are outlined below:

Selecting relevant parts of a book to read:

  • Start by reading the title and blurb on the front cover!
  • Browse the book quickly using the contents pages
  • Look at the index in the back if you’re looking for something specific
  • In individual chapters, look at the headings and sub-headings
  • Identify which parts of which chapters are worth reading and mark them with stickers

Skimming pages:

  • Read the chapter heading
  • Then read any sub-headings
  • Read the first sentence of each paragraph, which should introduce the topic or idea
  • Look at any diagrams, graphs or charts
  • Read the summary or conclusion chapter
  • Good approach for journal articles if abstract does not give you enough information

Reading interactively:

  • Think about what you’re reading as you read it
  • Question what you’re reading
  • Make notes of the important points
  • Write down ideas triggered by what you read
  • Challenge the assumptions of the author, the logic of the arguments, and the validity of conclusions

General reading tips:

  • Ask yourself, do you read better from paper or a computer screen?
  • Take regular breaks when reading
  • Check whether you’re taking in what you’re reading
  • If the material isn’t relevant, then move on
  • Start reading something general
  • Reading is easier if you have a sense of the context and a general overview of the subject
  • Read the most basic text you can find first
  • Re-read difficult or complex passages
  • Academic texts often contain complicated sections
  • Check you’ve understood what you’ve read
  • Vary your reading speed depending on the material

Keep a detailed record of everything you read:

  • Author
  • Title of the article/book/report
  • Date of publication
  • Place of publication and the publisher
  • If it is a chapter in an edited book, note the title and the editor of the book, the page numbers and chapter
  • If it is a paper in a journal, note the title of the journal, volume, issue number and pages

Need some more specific tips on how to develop effective reading strategies? Check out my posts on skimming and scanning and understanding difficult texts.