How to improve learning with active reading

Good reading practices are some of the most important things you can develop as a student. Active reading helps you develop critical thinking skills and better understand the material you are reading. Reading can be seen as active participation in a text. When we read actively, we are not only absorbing the material but also processing it. This active participation is what helps us learn more effectively.

1. Get an overview of the text

Begin active reading by exploring the document’s purpose. Try to understand what the document is trying to say and why. Think about why the material is important for your course, and how it is relevant to you.

The first paragraph of the text is usually crucial to understanding the material as a whole. Make sure to take your time when reading it as skipping over this part will make it difficult to follow the rest of the text.

After reading the first paragraph, look through the headings and subheadings, and read the concluding paragraphs to get a clear idea of where the text is heading (as long as you aren’t reading fiction!).

Pause to think about what you have read so far. Does it make sense? Do you agree with what you have read? What questions do you have?

2. Read and process the rest of the text

As you read the rest of the text, think about your questions and look for the answers in the text. Keep in mind your purpose in reading the text, and look for information relevant to that purpose.

Pause regularly to ask yourself what the main points so far have been, and what details have been presented in support of those points. Notice what is factual and what is the author’s opinion. Is anything confusing? And do you have any further questions?

3. Take notes

After finishing the text, put the text aside and take notes on the main points that you remember. Think again about what was interesting, important, surprising, confusing… Do you agree with what you have read? How is it important for your course? If the text is long, you may need to pause to summarize the important points after reading each section.

4. Review

Read the text again to check whether you have missed anything important. Update your own summary of the text and note down anything that you need to find out more about.

Relate the information you have read to other sources – try to understand how it fits with other things you have learned in class.

As Donna Ogle explains, in “K-W-L: A Teaching Model That Develops Active Reading of Expository Text” (1986)1, “prior knowledge is extremely important in influencing how we interpret what we read and what we learn from reading”. What do you bring to the text? What experience have you had with the topic, and how has that affected your understanding and perspective on the text?

Additional Active Reading Strategies

If the text is relatively important, try some of these additional strategies:

  • Create a list of study questions based on the text. Test yourself.
  • Create a flow chart or diagram to represent what you have read, or how the material fits with other things you have learned. This is especially helpful if you have a Visual learning style (find out here).
  • Discuss what you have read with someone else.

Active reading takes effort!

You may be tempted to highlight important passages as you read or to copy passages into your notes. While this is slightly better than just reading through the text, it is not likely to be very helpful for your learning.

Keep in mind that active reading takes effort – it is much easier to passively read through a text, but the more time and effort you put into actively engaging with what you are reading and integrating it with other things you know, the more you will learn.

If the text is long or you are getting tired, it is better to break the text into portions and have regular breaks. That way you can keep reading actively rather than falling back into passively reading with the goal of getting to the end.