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Study Skills: Reading Strategies

This guide offers learning strategies, study skills, and resources to support student academic success.

Reading Textbooks


Reading course textbooks is perhaps the most time-consuming component of learning. For many students the volume of material presented in their textbooks is overwhelming.  It can often be hard to discern what information is important. In addition, reading for long periods of time can be tiring and at the end of a chapter students often feel like they retained little of what they read.  Sound familiar?

Effective reading strategies can help you maximize your time and effort as well as enable you to better comprehend the material, leading to better academic performance.

Be an active reader

Active reading does not mean wearing a sweatband and hitting the treadmill with your textbook.  The majority of students use passive strategies (ones that don’t involve much thought or critical thinking) when reading.  These students open the chapter and simply start to read, without any context about what the chapter is about, not knowing what they are expected to learn, and uncertain how the information is important or relates to the course objectives.  A far more effective approach is to be an active reader-- a student who reads with purpose to understand and evaluate the content as it relates to the subject.  Actively reading your textbooks will help you understand and retain more of what you read.  Below are some strategies to help you become a more efficient and effective reader.

Active Reading Strategies

The strategies below are ordered to optimize your reading efficiency and effectiveness.

Preview, preview, preview

Taking time to look through the chapter (at a high level) will help you obtain a basic understanding of what the content is about and will establish a framework in your long-term memory, helping you absorb topics, ideas and vocabulary when you actively read the chapter. Previewing the chapter can take time (20-30 minutes) but it is worthwhile.

Note: not all of the tasks listed in the table below may be available in all textbooks.



Estimated time (mins)

Why the task is important


Read the learning outcomes/objectives


Clear indicator of what you need to know


Read the chapter overview or abstract


Acts like a preview to the chapter (similar to a movie trailer)


Skim the guiding/end of chapter questions


Helps to further focus on the important content


Skim title/headings/subheadings


Orients your thinking to the structure and flow of the chapter


Skim the introduction/ conclusion/summary


Provides further clues about the central themes and content



When you finish previewing the chapter summarize what you recall in your own words.  A summary is a brief recap of what you remember as important.  A good approach is to separate your summary into three columns: a) what seems most important (main ideas and topics) b) what you want to learn more about (items of interest) and c) what seems most difficult or confusing.  After you have written the summary from memory go back to the items you previewed and add any information you may have forgotten or overlooked.  Summarizing should not take more than 20 minutes and is a valuable way of testing your understanding of the content.  A good tip is to read the summary out loud to yourself to build a strong ability to retain the information. 

Prior knowledge, predicting and questioning

Recalling what you already know about the topic and content can help stimulate your interest and increase retention and comprehension. Making predictions about what you may learn will help keep you motivated and more deeply connect you to the topic. Asking questions about what you are reading can help you monitor your comprehension of the text and clarify meaning. For more information see the box below called: How to Activate Prior Knowledge, Predict and Question.

  • Make a list of what you already know about the topic (based off your background knowledge and experiences). This can be a mental list or you can write it down.
  • Make some predictions about what you think the author will say in the chapter.
  • Write down some questions about what you want to know about the content/topic.

Skim the chapter

Skimming is a selective reading method to help you focus on the main idea of a chapter. Skimming helps the reader understand the overall points of the text and the relevance of the content to the course.  

  • Do not closely read every word, but rather focus on first and last sentences of a section, bold, italicized and highlighted words, and things like diagrams, graphs, charts and photos.
  • Avoid getting into the details in stories, examples and data.
  • Be deliberate and intentional about what you read. 
  • Skimming is not flying through words and somewhat paying attention.

Actively read

Active reading helps your brain think more deeply when reading.  When you read with intention you will get far more out of your efforts than you would by simply reading the chapter word-by-word.

  • Read section by section.  Try to set a goal to get to a certain point in 45 minutes or less.  If you don’t get there, it is okay, take a short break and come back to where you left off.
  • As you come across headings and sub-headings take a stop moment and contemplate what the section will be about.  Convert the headings/subheadings into questions (write them down) and then as you read, try to find (or at least consider) the answers.
  • Summarize after each section. Take the time to write down a brief summary of what the section was about and what you learned (just from memory)- this is key as it brings it all together in your own words and helps with comprehension and retention.  If you wish, you can go back and quickly scan the section to see what you missed and add to your summary. 

Summarize (again)

When you finish reading the chapter summarize what you recall in your own words.  Try to pull together the main ideas, themes and concepts, and look to connect points that are related, including connections between the material and your own life, the world, and other texts/course material you have learned.  An effective approach is to be selective when summarizing your notes by asking yourself questions about the material (What are the main ideas being discussed? What are the key terms and concepts?). Creating a summary that is concise and written by you can help you stay organized and make reviewing for assessments more efficient and effective.  Tip: be sure to consistently review your summaries to increase retention.   A good strategy it to schedule a summary review session weekly (on a set day and at a set time) for each course.  Read aloud each week's summary as you progress through the term (for example, in week 3, be sure to review summaries 1-3). If you review your summaries throughout the term, you will increase your retention and eliminate the need to cram before assessments. 

Notes and review

Most students do not have the time to re-read every chapter and article before an exam.  After you actively read a chapter, take the time to make some notes and remember to organize your thoughts so you can refer back to what is most important before the exam.

  • Leave a big space in your notebook after each section summary and go back and find information in the chapter that is critical and make notes below the relevant summary (definitions, key terms/concepts, ideas, examples). Try to write the notes in your own words as it is far better for recall.  Make notes of things you need to revisit (list the page number and why you need to revisit). Write down questions you have and ideas for further exploration.
  • If you take notes by hand in a notebook, one popular approach is to make your reading notes (including summaries) on the left page and leave the other page (right) blank.  It is important to organize your notes by heading.  When you are in class you can then listen for information that you learned from your readings and write your lecture notes on the adjacent (blank) page.  Using this approach assists with keeping information organized and accessible. 
  • Make a concept map: if you are a visual learner organize your ideas/thoughts into a concept map.  Try to map it out from memory and fill in gaps from the textbook (see the concept map tip sheet for detail).
  • Make flashcards: if you need to memorize key terms and ideas be sure to make flashcards (see flashcards tip sheet for detail)

Active Versus Passive Readings Strategies

Passive reading

Passive reading is a linear process that starts and ends with simply consuming the content.  Characteristics of reading passively include perusing the material from A to Z, focusing solely on comprehension, rushing through the content, overzealous highlighting of text, and forgetting much of the content immediately after reading.  Passive readers often lose focus and tire out easily and turn to other 'distractors' such as their phone. Does spending 3 hours reading a chapter only to forget much of what you read sound like an effective use of your time?

Active reading

Active readers engage with content using an interactive and inquisitive learning approach. Active reading is more like a discussion between you and the material, and involves making predictions, questioning the content, reading aloud, putting information in your own words, and critical thinking. The benefits of active reading include more efficient reading, greater ability to focus on the material, improved understanding of information, and greater overall retention of content. 

How to Activate Prior Knowledge, Make Predictions and Form Questions

Activate prior knowledge

Before reading the text, make a list of what you already know about the topic.  Then make a list of what you want to know about the topic. Using your own background knowledge and experiences can help stimulate your interest and increase your comprehension.

What do I already know or think I know about the topic? What do I need to know about the topic? What do I want to know about the topic? 

Make predictions

Making predictions can help us to become more active, engaged readers because as we read, we think about and revise our predictions as we gather more information.

After you have previewed the text (see previewing for more information), ask yourself the following questions in order to prepare yourself to read the chapter.

What do the title or section headings reveal about the text's topic, main theme or argument?

What sections seem familiar? Why?

What sections seem difficult or unfamiliar?  Why?

Does the text contain any features that highlight important ideas, such as bold-faced terms, or visual aids?

Create questions

Asking questions about what you are reading can help you monitor your comprehension of the text and clarify meaning. If you don't understand something, you can go back and read it again with your questions in mind.  You can construct your questions using these six basic question types: who, what, when, where, why, or how. 

For example, if a chapter is called "Ten Principles of Economics," you might write down the following question in the margin:  "What are the ten principles of economics?" Then, when you go on to read the chapter, try to answer the question by identifying each of the ten principles and write a note about each.  

Active Reading Resources