Studying and Learning Part 4: Effective Reading

The preceding articles in this series discussed some of the theoretical aspects around studying and learning. This article will introduce study skills in general, and reading skills in particular. Subsequent articles will discuss other study skills.

Key Messages:

Higher education requires learning and mastering vast amount of information.

Approaches to studying that may have worked in school are often inadequate in college.

The use of study skills can considerably ease the stress of learning, and improve academic performance.

The development of effective reading skills is one of the most important study skills required in college. One of the most popular reading methods is the SQ3R method.

SQ3R is an acronym for:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Read
  • Recall
  • Review


Before actually reading the material, you should try to get a feel for it by quickly skimming the content. Here, you do the following

  • Read the chapter title
  • Read the introduction and summary/ concluding section of the chapter. Do this even if you are reading only part of the chapter.
  • Note the headings, subheadings, and their relationship in the chapter
  • Note words that are in bold, italics, or are underlined
  • Glance at figures, graphs, diagrams, visuals, reading the captions for each
  • Notice study/review questions and activities at the end of the chapter

This allows you to broadly determine what the chapter is about, and what to expect.


The next step is to generate questions based on the content.

  • Ask yourself why you are reading the content
  • What are you specifically interested in?
  • Turn the headings into questions
  • What? Where? When? Why? How? Who?

The purpose of this step is to focus your reading, and give your reading purpose.

Asking questions allows for active reading, where you engage with the content and actively interact with it.

Example: Questions for the article thus far could be:

  • What is effective reading?
  • What is SQ3R?
  • How does one Survey?

The questioning should extend beyond the headings to content in general. Question what the author(s) says, asking if it is logical or consistent with what you already know, or what has been stated previously (see below).

Read (and Underline)

Read each section with the questions you developed in mind. Try to find the answers to those questions.

  • After reading the section, go back to the beginning and underline, highlight, or mark the material. Do NOT underline the first time you read the material, and underline ONLY the main points.
  • Read each chapter at least twice.
  • Try to identify key words and main points. Usually, each paragraph is written around a main point/ concept. Try to identify the same, and note/ underline it.
  • Use numbers to help you focus on a series of details:
    • Lists
    • Enumerations
    • Sequences
  • Place vertical lines in the margin to emphasize main points that include many lines of text.
  • Use asterisks to signal *main points* and other important ideas
  • Place recall phrases in the margins to condense major points and provide supporting details. You may also place summaries or questions in the margins.
  • Underline all definitions. Write “def” in the margin; put parentheses ( ) around examples. Nothing will stand out if you highlight/ underline the entire example.
  • Alternatively, you may circle important concepts, ideas or subheadings.
  • Highlight the points underlined, or highlight instead of underlining. Use different colours to identify headings, subheadings, important points, examples, etc. Consistently follow the same colour scheme throughout to avoid confusion.
  • React to what you read. Agree, disagree or question. Show your reactions with punctuation marks or any other symbols that work for you.
  • Assess if there is evidence for the ideas/ statements presented in the text.
  • Identify consequences of theories/ ideas you read.
  • Try to link your reading with other information within the same subject and across subjects.
  • Think of ways you could use the material (in the future).


Recall, recite and write

Once you have formulated questions, and read to answer those questions; you are ready to recall and recite the answers. Recalling and reciting helps you learn and remember what was read. Don’t skip this step even if you think you know the information (Most students wrongly believe that they know because they look at the text when recalling. If you must truly assess recall, it should be done with the book closed. Once done, open the book to check for accuracy and completeness.).

  • Recall and recite the answers to yourself. Also write brief study notes for future reference.
  • If the material is very difficult for you, prepare a sentence summary of the main idea in each paragraph.
  • Refer to the recall cues you wrote in the margins (in the previous step). Using them to recite may eliminate the need for study notes for some topics.
  • Assess how much you can recall without referring to the text/ your notes.
  • Don’t worry if you are unable to recite content verbatim- as long as you are able to describe the main points accurately (even if in your own words), it is alright.


This is the final step in this method.

  • Reread each main heading
  • Review the underlined/ highlighted material
  • Answer the questions for each section, using your notes to help you review.
  • Check that you understand the main points/ ideas in the text accurately.
  • Check your memory by trying to recall the main points after covering the text/notes. Next, expose each main point and try to recall the sub-points listed under it.

Further reading:

  1. Uelaine A. Study Skills Strategies: Get the Most from Every Minute of Learning. 4th ed. Axzo Press; 2009.
  2. Walsh F. The Regis Study Skills Guide. 5th ed. 2008.
  3. Price G, Maier P. Effective Study Skills: Unlock your potential. Pearson Education; 2007.
  4. Kennedy J. Study Skills: Maximise Your Time to Pass Exams. 2004.



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