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Reading at university: Stage 3 - Deeper understanding

At this stage, you have read the article while annotating, underlining, highlighting and identifying a number of things. Now you need to revisit these very early notes to develop your understanding and achieve a deeper level of reading.


Revisit what you don't understand

A good place to start are the areas you marked as not understanding, or those where you need to look something up. Now that you have finished the article, you may find you understand them better without the need to conduct further research. If you are really stuck, try to break down the section sentence by sentence, if necessary re-writing them into language you understand. If you are still unsure, it is at this point that it may be useful to look up words, phrases or ideas that are holding you back. Where possible, try to use academic sources from the library for this (although we admit Wikipedia can be useful as a quick reference source). As before, if you make no progress, do not give up on the whole article, move to focus on areas you do understand and revisit later.


Outline the main points

To develop a deeper understand of the article, it is helpful to start by outlining the main points and sources of evidence that you have identified from your initial reading. This can be done in any way you find useful. Examples include an outline in Microsoft Word, a mind map or hand-written notes. Whichever approach you choose, you should begin to reference the relevant page for each point you identify to enable you to easily revisit the text. This is very useful for both essay writing and seminar participation. Your notes will be of little use if they do not help you navigate the original text should you need to revisit it.

To be the most effective, the first instance of your notes should be handwritten, either with pen and paper or with a stylus on screen. Hand writing makes you more likely to think, summarise and condense your reading. If you do type, make sure you never copy and paste or simply re-write quotations. It’s a waste of time if this is all you do as it does not require any thought. Your notes should always demonstrate your understanding. This requires you to write things in your own words. This is particularly important if your note taking is assessed, but even personal notes should be a representation of your own interpretations, ideas and thinking if they are going to help you understand the article.


Develop your notes

undefinedAs suggested above, the notes should reflect your own understanding of the text.

  • Never fall into the habit of rewriting sentences or large blocks of text.
  • Try to limit quotations to just a few words and focus on paraphrasing the broader ideas from the article.
  • Make sure you record page numbers for any key areas of the text and add page numbers to any quotations you make.

The more thought you put into making your notes, the more your understanding will develop. Copying and pasting requires no cognition, so avoid it at all costs unless you are taking a selective quote. Even then, you should develop detailed notes on this—why it is important and why you have quoted it.


Ask questions

As you start to develop these notes, you should begin to develop your own questions. These questions should be based on the article you have read, but also on the questions you may be addressing in your essay or seminar. It can be useful to record your questions as this is a record of your thinking, and this may be particularly useful if your notes are assessed.

You can revisit the text of the article to see if there are answers, but it is also important to note that unanswered questions can be just as useful as they enable you to identify weaknesses, assumptions and areas for further study or reading. If your notes or seminar participation is assessed, then demonstrating your close reading of the text, and your willingness to ask questions is exactly what your tutor will be looking for.


Study the footnotes and reference list

The footnotes, reference list and/or bibliography are the record of all materials used in the process of writing the article. As this represents a substantial part of the evidence used to support the claims in the article, you may want to consider and thus be confident in the quality of the materials the author has used. You may wish to consider:

  • The types of articles an author has used. If they are consulting primary sources or empirical studies directly, this may be better than a heavy reliance on secondary studies as this suggests the author has themselves not read any of the original studies or original source material.
  • The quality of the sources. You will find most academic journal articles rely on academic sources, but it is always useful to check. This is vital if you are using a non-academic source as you would not want to rely on an article based on evidence from an unreliable source such as Wikipedia.
  • The bias of sources. There is nothing wrong in using biased sources, as long as this is acknowledged, tackled critically and is explained. A political argument for example cannot be presented as balanced if it relies on evidence from only one side.
  • The age of the source. If an author relies on old sources, this may suggest a dated argument. This varies with importance by discipline. For example, the use of old sources is dangerous for health sciences, or may reflect outdated policy for education. Again, even in a Humanities subject an author would normally be expected to draw attention to a dated source, and to explain its importance/continued relevance.

You should also take note of any sources that you yourself may wish to consult directly. Even where an article may not be of direct use, it may point you in the direction of useful resources. If you have any doubts as to how an author has used or quoted from a source, you should try and find it yourself to read the original material.


Identify the arguments

Now that you have a firmer understanding of the article, you should be able to identify the arguments within it. All academic articles are made up of a series of arguments. Through these arguments, authors will make claims that they support with their evidence/reasons and they will try to persuade the reader (you) that these claims are correct or significant in some way.

When you are analysing claims, you are mainly deciding if the claim is justified by the evidence. This involves a number of different sub questions:

  • Is the claim based on sound premises (how does the author back them up?)
  • Has the author provided corroborative evidence?
  • Is the author making any assumptions that weaken the premises?
  • Is the claim a logical one given the premises?

Persevere

As you develop your notes, you will need to revisit and re-read the article. This is not a bad thing. With each section you read again, you will potentially be able to identify new things.

If you feel overwhelmed by the quantity of things you need to look for, try to break them down and read the article once for each. For example, dedicating an entire reading to mapping the points to the evidence used for them, questioning if it is appropriate and reliable as you do it, then move onto another issue for your next reading.

Practice activity

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

 

Example annotated copy:

thumbnail of example article completed

 

 

Can you make notes from the highlighting and annotations in this article?

Note how much easier it is to make notes for an annotated article than a fresh copy.

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