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Reading at university: Stage 1 - What is it about?

This first stage is designed to give you an overview of the article.

Familiarising yourself

Stage 1 does not involve detailed reading, but involves familiarising yourself with the article. It is essential preparatory work to help you, before you read the article. At this point, all you need to do is:

  1. Read the article
  2. Read the abstract
  3. Read the introduction
  4. Read the conclusion
  5. Browse the rest of the article


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This is not the kind of detailed reading that will help you know the detail of the article, it is designed to provide an overview to assist you when you read the article proper. This initial process should not take you a long time, but will make you familiar with the article, its content, and its main point(s).

What the different sections should tell you

Section What it tells you
Title Often not a lot! Though it may be enough to screen out papers that are clearly outside your focus.
Abstract and/or introduction This will give you a general overview of the article. If an abstract is not present, you can use the introduction instead. This is designed to tell the reader (you) what this article is about and will give you a very general overview of the main point(s) or argument(s). If it is a complicated article, you can use this overview to identify points later in the article.
Conclusion Conclusions are designed to remind the reader of the main points of the article. The whole article should lead the reader to this conclusion. Remember, you are not reading a novel. You want the spoilers! Reading the conclusion this early will give you an idea of where the article ends and this can help you identify the core arguments when you read it properly yourself.
Browsing the rest This is not detailed reading. This involves reading sub-titles (if present) to give you an idea of the structure of the article. You can also use this opportunity to read the labels of any tables, images, graphs or other figures. You should highlight anything of relevance that stands out to help focus your reading later.

This first step is therefore designed to give you a general understanding of what the core content of an article is. No matter your reason for picking up the article, this is an essential stage. If this is an article you have chosen yourself, it can help you judge if it is worthwhile reading. If it is an article you have been given, it will prepare you for in-depth reading. Whatever your purpose for reading this article, keep that reason in mind. This will stop you getting distracted from the real reason you are reading.

As you read:

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Look for anything relevant to the guidance, question, problem or issue you are investigating.

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If you see anything that is relevant, underline or highlight it. This is for you to come back to later and is not enough for full understanding in itself.

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At this stage, try not to get distracted by taking detailed notes. This stage is as much about judging the worth of the article as it is about gaining a broad understanding.

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If this is an article you have chosen yourself, it is important that you are willing to stop reading and go back to searching for alternative sources if the article turns out to be of no use.

Do you need to move to stage 2?

Not only will following this process give you an overview of the article, it will provide enough depth of reading to tell you if it is worth progressing to stage 2. It can therefore help you avoid spending a lot of time reading a complicated article only to find out it doesn't help you.

In such cases, it is easy to fall into the trap of forcing yourself to use an article just because you have put effort into finding and reading it. Always go back to searching rather than use an article with only marginal relevance.

If the article looks useful, or if you have been assigned it as class reading, it's time for stage 2...


Practice activity

How successful was Joseph Stalin in establishing Soviet Union as a superpower?

Can you identify the key points of this article by following the instructions on this page?


Blank copy:

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Example annotated copy:

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Article by Majkowski (2017) used under license (CC-BY-NC)