The first step in what we are calling the thinking phase is to establish a reading space. The best place to absorb information varies depending on the person. Some people need total silence in order to concentrate while others need a constant stream of sound.
Now, it’s important to keep in mind that reading for class is different than reading for fun, so the normal reading space might have to be adjusted. Take some time to experiment to find the most optimal location. Once you’ve found it, get comfortable. You'll probably be there for a while.
Don’t forget to bring headphones wherever you decide to set up. (The way you study might be a hindrance to someone else around you.)
Below are a few Youtube music streams and channels that might help with concentration:
LoFi Hip-Hop Music:
- Music for Productivity, Study Music, Focus Music, Improve Memory and Concentration
- The Best of Classical Music - Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin... Classical Music Piano Playlist Mix
- Vega BGM's Channel
- Quiet Quest - Study Music Channel
Active Reading: How to Digest a Text
For the purpose of serving our bread and butter, we are going to be focusing primarily on English-related texts (i.e., novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, etc.), but we do have some resources below that will help students navigate textbooks and parse the information therein.
Awesome! Let's get started.
Step 1: Read the text.
I know this sounds sarcastic, but you would be surprised (or maybe not) how many students try to get away with never opening the assigned reading material for class. The purpose in active reading is to slow down in order to absorb the information the professor is trying to teach you. Some things to keep in mind while reading are: (1) Why did my professor assign this text? (2) How does this text factor into the overall theme of the class? (3) What is the significance of the assigned text? Is there something socially/politically/historically relevant about it? (4) Is this text revealing something about current events? Is it demonstrating a continuation of a certain type of behavior? Does it break from the norm? (These questions can help with answering the larger implications or the "So What?" of your essay.)
The first read through of the material is to ascertain plot, narrative structure, some of the big themes, and the motivation of the main characters, but don't limit yourself to only these things. You should also start paying attention to the things that grab your focus. Is there a minor character that you are fascinated with? Is there a setting that you are honing in on? A certain scene that you keep thinking about? You also might want to pay attention to where a text is missing information. Are there any blind spots in the presentation? What's the text's bias? You don't need to answer these questions now; you just want to make a note of it if you observe it.
We advise that you take notes as you read (see Annotation and Note-Taking below for some helpful tips and resources). Writing down your observations as they occur will help keep the information in your head. Also, the more you write down the more material you will have to reference back to when you move to start brainstorming and forming an argument.
(What if you don't have time to read the entire text? At the bottom of this page, we have some tips on how to effectively skim material. We've all done it. No one reads every word or every piece of assigned literature. Don't worry. You can find shortcuts and still succeed.)
Step 2: Re-read the text, but this time with intent.
I know, I know, who has time to read something all the way through once, let alone twice, when taking multiple classes and working on multiple assignments. This step is more for essay preparation than for class preparation. When you are writing an essay, you will have to re-read either the entire text over again or at least large sections; this is why it is important to take good notes and make sensible notations when reading. Notes will help with formulating the argumentation of your essay and in finding evidence to support the pre-established claim.
The second read through is primarily about parsing the language utilized within the text. (This is especially true if you are looking at poetry.)
The important thing to remember about language is that the connotation of a word can change over time, so don't forget to reference the Oxford English Dictionary if you are ever trying to figure out the definition of a word in a different century. (You are going to need to log in with the first part of your email username [everything before the @westga.edu] and password to use the OED.) The way words were used in Shakespeare's England are different than how we use them today.
You also want to think about the author's intentionality during the re-read. Why did they write it? Is it in protest of something? Is it to draw the reader's attention to something? Are they informing you about something or misleading you? You will also need to re-evaluate the author's biases here. Have they purposely not explored something? Whose narrative is being privileged? What does that privilege mean? What does it reveal?
- Active Reading (pdf) from UNC Chapel Hill
- Reading Strategies from Saint Mary's College of California
- College Info Geek's video How to Read Your Textbooks More Efficiently
- Reading a Textbook for True Understanding from Cornell College
Annotation and Note-Taking
Annotating a text is all about slowing down to really understand the material; it forces you to take the text apart and digest it into consumable pieces. Plan accordingly to give yourself the time and space to breakdown the text.
While it might go against everything you've been taught up until now, the easiest way to make notes while reading is to write directly on the text. Yes, this includes books. (But still not library books. Those don’t belong to you. Respect the property of others' by not defacing them.) If you feel uncomfortable writing in a book, invest in some sticky notes; they are a great way to keep track of your thoughts while not scribbling on the text itself. Sticky notes also come in a wide variety of shapes and colors that can add a bit of personality to note-taking.
Below are a few things you might want to have on hand/keep in mind when annotating:
- Supple List (Optional):
- Sticky Notes
- Post-It Flags
- Highlighters (assorted colors)
- Pens (assorted colors)
- Chart Key (Optional):
- Mark sentences or passages that are confusing with a question mark
- Bracket information you might want to get clarification on in class or from the professor
- Circle words that are new to you and need to be looked up. (Don’t be afraid to pull out your phone for a quick Google search.)
- Highlight or underline passages you think are important. (If you want, you can use different colors for different pieces of information.)
- Marginal Notations: (These could also be taken on a separate piece of paper or in a notebook.)
- Write down if something:
- Reminds you of a different text
- Interests, impresses, surprises, disturbs, confuses etc.
- Is historically significant or references a specific date
- Is a literary device or significant to the author’s use of language
- Write down if something:
The important thing to remember is that these are your personal notes to help you decipher what information you might utilize when writing your essay. You can organize them any way you see fit; these notes are for you.
- UT English’s video Reading Actively: How to Annotate a Text
- School Habit’s video How to Annotate Text While Reading
- Katie Cranfill’s Annotating Text video
- 7 of the best apps for annotating pdfs from Educator's Technology
- Perkins e-Learning's Using an Annotation App in the Classroom: Low Vision Students
- 7 great web tools to help teachers from Educator's Technology
Understanding the Assignment
Every assignment has its own unique purpose. The professor expresses this purpose in the language of the assignment/prompt/directions. It's your job to parse this language to satisfy the requirements of the assignment. The easiest way to derail your grade is to deviate from what the professor is asking you to do within an assignment.
(You can utilize some of the same materials from your annotation supplies here. Different color pens/pencils will help with parsing the language of an assignment.)
Below are a few strategies for decoding a prompt from Swarthmore College1:
- Look for key words. Look for words in the assignment that indicate what type of writing the professor wants you to produce. Such words help you frame your paper, find your audience, and generate the type of writing your professor expects. For example, there is a difference between "summarize" and "analyze." Be aware of the meanings of words like "discuss", "evaluate", "explain", "describe", and "define." If you aren't sure what your professor means by a certain word in the assignment, don't be afraid to ask for clarification.
- Know the purpose of the paper. Once you've figured out what the assignment is telling you, think about how you will write to fulfill the expectations of your audience. The assignment may require you to persuade your reader, compare and contrast ideas, or summarize an author's point of view. Considering your purpose at this point will make it easier for you to figure out what kind of thesis you'll need when you start to write the paper.
- Fulfill the criteria in the prompt. This point may seem self-evident, but it's important! It's easy to get off-topic when you're in the brainstorming stage. When considering your ideas, look back at the assignment to make sure you're still within the parameters set by your professor. Be aware of the specific details of the assignment and know your audience, word limit, and other guidelines.
- Ask for clarity. Sometimes professors make assignments vague or open-ended so that you have an opportunity to work on a topic that interests you. If you don't understand the assignment, if you're having trouble developing a topic, or if you're worried that your topic may stray from your assignment, ask your professor for guidance or visit the Writing Center.
- How to Read an Assignment from Harvard College
- Understanding Assignments from UNC Chapel Hill
- Understanding Your Assignment from University of Maryland
- Understanding an Assignment from Massachusetts Institution of Technology
- Understanding Writing Assignments from Purdue University
The main point is to get your thoughts down on paper. (This is where good notes and annotations come in handy.) Brainstorming is meant to help focus in on an argument. The easiest way to determine what an essay should be about is to figure out where your attention/interest is with the assigned reading material. Once you have ascertained your interest, start narrowing in on a topic/argument.
Brainstorming an Idea from the UWC's exploration of the research process demonstrates one type of brainstorming with an included example.
Other types of Brainstorming, which were compiled by UNC Chapel Hill2, are as follows:
- Free-writing. Find a clock, watch, or timer to help you keep track of time. Choose a topic, idea, or question you would like to consider. It can be a specific detail or a broad concept-whatever you are interested in exploring at the moment. Write (on paper or on a computer) for 7-10 minutes non-stop on that topic. If you get stuck and don’t know what to say next, write “I’m stuck and don’t know what to say next…” or try asking yourself “what else?” until another idea comes to you. Do not concern yourself with spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Your goal is to generate as much as you can about the topic in a short period of time and to get used to the feeling of articulating ideas on the page. It’s okay if it’s messy or makes sense only to you. You can repeat this exercise several times, using the same or a variety of topics connecting to your subject. Read what you have written to see if you have discovered anything about your subject or found a line of questioning you’d like to pursue.
- Clustering/Webbing. Find a clock, watch, or timer to help you keep track of time. Put a word you’d like to explore in the center of a piece of paper and put a circle around it. As fast as you can, free-associate or jot down anywhere on the page as many words as you can think of associated with your center word. If you get stuck, go back to the center word and launch again. Speed is important and quantity is your goal. Don’t discount any word or phrase that comes to you, just put it down on the page. Jot words for between 5-10 minutes. When you are finished you will have a page filled with seemingly random words. Read around on the page and see if you have discovered anything or can see connections between any ideas.
- Listing. On a piece of paper list all the ideas you can think of connected to subjects you are considering exploring. Consider any idea or observation as valid and worthy of listing. List quickly and then set your list aside for a few minutes. Come back and read your list and do the exercise again.
- Cubing. This technique helps you look at your subject from six different points of view (imagine the 6 sides of a cube and you get the idea). Take your topic or idea and 1) describe it, 2) compare it, 3) associate it with something else you know, 4) analyze it (meaning break it into parts), 5) apply it to a situation you are familiar with, 6) argue for or against it. Write at least a paragraph, page, or more about each of the six points of view on your subject.
- Journalistic questions. Write these questions down the left hand margin of a piece of paper: Who? What? Where? When? How? And Why? Think about your topic in terms of each question. What? So What? Now what? To begin to explore an idea first ask yourself, “What do I want to explore?” and write about that topic for a page or more. Then read what you have written and ask “So what?” of the ideas expressed so far. Again, write for a page or more. Finally ask yourself, “Now what?” to begin to think about what else you might consider or where you might go next with an idea.
- Summarizing positions. Sometimes it’s helpful to simply describe what you know as a way to solidify your own understanding of something before you try to analyze or synthesize new ideas. You can summarize readings by individual articles or you can combine what you think are like perspectives into a summary of a position. Try to be brief in your description of the readings. Write a paragraph or up to a page describing a reading or a position.
- Brainstorming from UNC Chapel Hill
- Introduction to Visual Literacy: Visual Brainstorming from UNC Chapel Hill
- Getting Started: Brainstorming Strategies (pdf) from Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute
Critical Thinking Skills
Critical Thinking as defined by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform3:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.
It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.
Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills ("as an exercise") without acceptance of their results.
Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one's groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fairmindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of "idealism" by those habituated to its selfish use.
Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is therefore typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through-and-through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor.
- 5 tips to improve your critical thinking from Ted-Ed videos
- Study Skills – How to think critically from BBC Learning English videos
- What is Critical Thinking? from Center for Innovation in Legal Education videos
Skimming (and other reading strategies)
Below are the definitions of skimming and scanning from Butte University4:
Skimming and scanning are reading techniques that use rapid eye movement and keywords to move quickly through text for slightly different purposes. Skimming is reading rapidly in order to get a general overview of the material. Scanning is reading rapidly in order to find specific facts. While skimming tells you what general information is within a section, scanning helps you locate a particular fact. Skimming is like snorkeling, and scanning is more like pearl diving.
Use skimming in previewing (reading before you read), reviewing (reading after you read), determining the main idea from a long selection you don't wish to read, or when trying to find source material for a research paper.
Use scanning in research to find particular facts, to study fact-heavy topics, and to answer questions requiring factual support.
- UNC Chapel Hill's page on Skimming
- Skimming and Scanning from University of Toronto
- Staying Afloat: Some Scattered Suggestions on Reading in College from Swarthmore College
- Effective Reading Strategies from Charles Darwin University
If you decide to use online resources like Sparknotes or watch a film adaptation instead of doing the reading, you are still going to need to do a little extra reading about your text. Sparknotes is not going to tell you everything so still read some of the actual text before going to class. As for film adaptations, you are going to need to know what they changed. Some adaptations might as well have a completely new title with how far they are from the original text. Be very careful relying on outside resources. Your professor will spot that you haven't done your reading very fast if you mention something completely off the wall during class discussion.
- "Understanding Your Assignment." Writing Associates Program, Swarthmore College, https://www.swarthmore.edu/writing/understanding-your-assignment. Accessed 28 March 2020.
- "In-Class Writing Exercises." The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://writingcenter.unc.edu/faculty-resources/tips-on-teaching-writing/in-class-writing-exercises/. Accessed 29 April 2020.
- "Defining Critical Thinking." CriticalThinking.org, Foundation for Critical Thinking, https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766. Accessed 1 May 2020.
- "Skimming and Scanning." Center for Academic Success, Butte College, http://www.butte.edu/departments/cas/tipsheets/readingstrategies/skimming_scanning.html. Accessed 4 May 2020.