Opinion: Three key ways to reading well in college

Written by: 
Eric Rackley

As college students, reading is less about the letters and sounds we learned as children and more about learning new information. This can be difficult, especially when trying to learn abstract concepts and unfamiliar vocabulary embedded in long and complex texts. Luckily, there are specific things you can do to address these challenges.

Read the Right Way

Reading is not generic. Because we should not read everything the same way, there are right ways and wrong ways to read. Reading the “right way” means that in a physics course you read as a physicist, in a mathematics course you read as a mathematician, and in a poetry course you read as a poet. Imagine reading a biology textbook like you read a novel for English. You are likely to miss (and misunderstand) much of the content because reading in each course is highly specialized.

In a history course, for example, you may be required to read primary source documents. To read them correctly, the professor might ask you to corroborate evidence across the documents, examine the origins of the documents, or scrutinize the credibility of the authors. In a science course you might be required to draw heavily on mathematical thinking to interpret data displayed in tables, charts, and figures, and learn specialized vocabulary.

These specific ways of reading can be difficult to recognize, but your professors can help. They will often give you hints about how to read course material. Once you learn what it means to read the “right way” in each of your courses, you may be surprised by how much more you understand.

Attend to your thoughts

We have all read an entire page without remembering what it was about. This is an example of reading without thinking. This is a problem because reading is thinking. If your mind is not engaged with the material, then you will not understand it. It is that simple. The solution is to pay attention to your thoughts. As you read, you might ask yourself:

• What am I thinking about?

• Which thoughts are improving my understanding?

• Which thoughts are hindering my understanding?

Attending to your thoughts also helps you recognize when you are confused. Confusion is nothing to worry about unless you do not realize you are confused. Think about what would happen if you kept reading without realizing or caring that the words were not making sense. How much are you likely to learn?

The good news is that recognizing confusion signals that you can monitor your thinking, which means you can fix it when it goes awry. When confusion sets in, it helps to reread, take a break, talk to a friend about the material, think about what you already know, or adjust your reading speed. Repairing reading confusion and understanding course material are more likely to occur when you pay attention to your thoughts.


Good readers are constantly curious. They ask themselves why things happen, what might happen next, and why authors say what they say. Reading without wonder is like eating without taste buds. We may be going through the motions, but we don’t really get what we are looking for and we lose the adventure. If you want to understand your course material, then wonder. Specifically:

• Ask yourself questions.

• Imagine conversations with professors and classmates, or have actual ones.

• Interrogate the author.

• Puzzle over interesting ideas or phrases.

And if you are not interested in the material? Fake it. Pretend you are interested just for this reading assignment, or just for today, or just for this week. How would you approach this reading assignment if you really were interested? What questions would you ask? What might someone who was curious wonder about this chapter? If you cannot muster genuine interest, faking it can still help you read better and learn more. The former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, is reported to have said, “If a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow [her child] with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.” The same may be said of readers. The most useful tool for improving your reading may be a healthy dose of curiosity...real, or imagined.

In the end, reading remains a complex, time-consuming activity. There is no golden ticket for reading well, but practicing the three keys suggested here can help you develop the skills to read well in college and beyond.

Dr. Rackley is an assistant professor in the School of Education at BYU-Hawaii. His research and teaching focus on academic and religious literacies. He can be reached at eric.rackley@byuh.edu.
Date Published: 
Saturday, September 2, 2017
Last Edited: 
Saturday, September 2, 2017

NOTE: This story was featured in the Sept. 2017 print issue.