Student Resources

Active Reading 101

In your college courses, you’ll encounter all different kinds of texts- poetry, novels, textbooks, research articles, and more. Though the amount you’re assigned will differ by course and instructor, reading in preparation for class is something you can expect to do just about every day. Active reading strategies can help you stay focused, understand the material, and remember it better later on. The specific strategies you use will depend on your own learning preferences as well as the kind of material you’re reading, but you can trust that developing these skills will help you be a more efficient and productive reader overall!

This Active Reading 101 (pdf) offers pointers on marking up your textbooks in order to make them work best for you and your learning. For even more helpful tips on getting the most out of your reading, check out these simple steps:


Be in the right study environment. If you’re easily distracted, plan to read where those distractions will be minimal.  For instance, if you’re going to be tempted by conversations with your roommate, tuck yourself away in a quiet corner of the library. Find the right level of background noise that helps you stay focused; maybe that’s complete silence, or maybe it’s a bustling coffee shop. It’s easy to get drowsy when reading for long stretches (or on little sleep), so avoid reading in bed or lounging on your comfy couch.

Skim your reading first to look for main points and overall organization of ideas. This will help you estimate about how long the reading may take and help you process the information when you read it in greater detail. Pay special attention to the chapter introduction and conclusion, headings and sub-headings, and any words in bold or italics.

After a good skim, ask yourself a few pre-reading questions. For instance, what do you already know about the topic? What are aspects that you may need to pay extra attention to? How do you think this relates to what you have learned in class so far?


Divide long reading assignments into manageable segments. Be realistic about how long you can read at once and still get something out of it. Take short breaks in between segments – eat a snack, move around, watch a TED Talk – or split it up over several days. Keeping your breaks short isn’t always easy, so be disciplined about staying on schedule.

Determine and write down the main idea of each section. Textbooks and articles usually use a series of headers to introduce different sections of reading. Write key points about that section in the margin. Not only will this help you learn the information as you read, but it will also help you review in preparation for exams later.

Develop a consistent strategy for marking up the text, and stick with it across different courses. Perhaps you will circle new words and underline their definitions, star the main point, and write “EX” in the margin when there is an example to illustrate a key concept. Whatever system you devise, use it consistently.

Make connections while you read. Use the margins to add your own thoughts or questions, such as disagreements with the author, points of confusion, or ways that the reading relates to ideas you’ve already discussed in that or another course. Make connections to your own life and note examples that come to mind while you read.

Pay attention to the insets and graphics. The visual may help illustrate a key point in a way you can better remember, and sometimes it will introduce information that’s not found anywhere else (except the test!).

AFTER YOU READ (and you thought you were finished when you got to the last page...)

Re-read any confusing segments, and make notes to ask your professor. Asking for clarification doesn’t make you look stupid; it makes you look prepared. So review any questions before you go to class, and ask your professor to help you better understand.

Explain the material out loud to yourself or to a classmate. If you are studying alone, talk through it as if you were teaching it to others.  This will help improve your memory as well as help you discover the points that you best and least understand.

Skim the reading before class. This will refresh your memory and help prepare you to think more deeply during the instructor’s lecture and classroom exercises. It’ll also prepare you for any unexpected quizzes.