As a college student you might think that the only way to read is to begin with the first word and continue until you reach the last (see Six Reading Myths). You then rely upon the instructor's lecture or slides to determine what was important, "what you have to know" or "what will be on the exam." This is unfortunate because active reading, the ability to discern what is important, is an important meta-cognitive skill you should be developing. Of course, reading cues from instructors is a skill some students have mastered, but it shouldn't be at the expense of their own abilities.
While I don’t necessarily agree with everything written on this subject, and reading techniques differ across discipline and genre (e.g., textbook or scientific paper), you have more freedom to be productive than you think. Don't start with the first word and finish with the last. Mature scholars purposefully skim a work first by looking at the abstract, headings, figures and tables, and conclusion (and even the bibliography) before reading the text more carefully. Basically, before a more careful reading, try to quickly determine the overall structure, key ideas, and relevant questions as described in the SQ3R reading method: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review.
When you have finished a reading, you should have a QIC list (questions, insights, connections). That is, you should have a list of reading questions (derived by you from the headings on the first skim which can later be learned for self-quizzing) and open questions from your more careful reading. You should have a list of insights, including the reading's key arguments, concepts and factoids, and your own novel interpretations. And you should have made some connections to other readings and current examples. When I read I look for these things and annotate the text accordingly. These can also then inform your reading response, if needed. If you don't bother to summarize the reading in a similar way (i.e., identify the big idea, key concepts, main examples, and outstanding questions) you are wasting much of your effort.
Finally, to remain an active learner, read as if you had to explain the material to someone else. If you find something confusing, be prepared to explain why it is confusing and what you would need for it not to be so.
Annotation is an important part of active readings. You might find this article useful. Regardless of the technique you use, some tips for reading and annotating include:
- Get rid of highlighters, you can't write notes and questions in a highlighter.
- Read an entire paragraph before deciding what to note -- otherwise you might note too much.
- Note words, not sentences.
- Record your thoughts (connections, questions, mnemonics) in the margins.
Personally, I use the following markings that I use for rereading or for typing up my notes. I use a pencil, try to keep annotations to a minimum, and avoid marking the text itself. Most importantly, when I'm done, I summarize the big idea, key concepts, main examples, and outstanding questions.
|| : excerpt this
| : paraphrase this
? : look this up
1) : constituent parts or examples
An example of from Grossberg, Wartella, Whitney and Wise's MediaMaking is below; I mark one excerpt, one paraphrase, 3 definitions, one "look up" and the two types of "determination."