Reading and note taking

'The more you read the more things you will know. The more that you learn the more places you'll go.'

Dr Seuss

Reading is the key to success at university. To do well, it's important to know what to read and how much to read. Learn about some of our top tips and ideas on coping with reading at university. Watch these videos on the best strategies for effective reading, from Language and Learning Adviser, Anita Gray.

Do I have to read everything on the reading list?

Reading is central to studying at university. However, it is not possible to read everything in 12 weeks.  So it's really important that you identify which texts or sections of texts to focus on.  Use the reading list in your study guide as a starting point for you own research for an assignment on the topic. You aren't expected to read every article listed. It's a good idea to ask the unit chair or tutor what is most important to focus on.

Text structure

As you read, take note of the following features as they can indicate the importance of ideas and information in a text.

  • headings and subheadings
  • type size and font
  • the organisation of space on a page (indenting, use of text boxes etc)
  • special symbols (like bullet points)
  • Other things to look out for include:


  • table of contents
  • index
  • chapter summaries
  • headings
  • subheadings

Journal articles:

  • abstract
  • headings
  • subheadings
  • conclusion

Do I need to read every word in a text?

It depends on the text and why you are reading it …

Sometimes the meaning of the word becomes clear from what follows. Sometimes it does not matter, if you are able to get the gist of a passage. You can underline new words and look them up later if you want to, but don't keep stopping to look them up – it breaks the flow of meaning. However, if you are reading something with many words that are new to you, it may be because of:

  • insufficient background knowledge
  • the difficulty of the language level.

Learn about paragraph structure

Remember paragraphs deal with one key point - usually dealt with in the first sentence. Read the first sentence of each paragraph after scanning headings, sub headings, introduction and conclusion. This will give you a good overview of the argument and how the text hangs together.

Reading techniques


Skimming involves running your eye very quickly over large chunks of text. It is different from gaining an overview, because when skimming you deal with the standard print. You are trying to pick up some of the main ideas without paying attention to detail. It is a fast process. A single chapter should take only a few minutes. You would choose to skim read if there is very little changed print to gain an overview of a text. Skimming adds further information to an overview.

How to skim:
  • Review your reading task.
  • Note any changed print and graphics.
  • Start at the beginning and glide your eyes over the text very quickly. You do not actually read the text in total. You may read a few words of every paragraph, perhaps the first and last sentences.

Always familiarise yourself with the reading material by gaining an overview and/or skimming before reading in detail.


Scanning is sweeping your eyes over part of a text to find specific pieces of information.

How to scan:
  • After gaining an overview and skimming, identify the part of the text that probably contains the information you need.
  • Read the question again, or be clear what it is you are looking for.
  • Scan the text. As soon as your eye catches an important word or phrase, stop reading.

Reading for assignments

It's important to analyse the assignment question carefully. You are usually trying to show that you can interpret and use information to answer a specific question NOT to write everything you know about a subject.


  • Begin with an article or book that gives an overview of the topic.
  • Leave the specialist publications until you have an idea of what is important to the topics as a whole.
  • Ask yourself what you need to find out and write your own questions as a guide to your reading.
  • Note down the answers and where they came from.

Note taking

Reading and good note taking skills go hand in hand. You will need to be as selective in your note taking as in your reading. You may need to skim through several books or articles before deciding what you want from each.

  • Write down bibliographic information.
  • Be alert for the main idea – usually in the first sentence of the paragraph.
  • For a relatively easy text underline, highlight or make brief notes.
  • For a difficult text, read through once and take notes on the second or subsequent reading.
  • Highlight selectively so the important information is clear.
  • If you highlight too much you have to read it all again when you get back to that source.
  • On first reading, it can be difficult to pick out what's important.
  • It may be better to highlight on second or subsequent reading.

Learning Advisers Kate and Tanya talk about note taking on paper or using an app.

There are numerous note taking apps that can help you take great notes. Some of these have features such as:

  • Handwriting
  • Typing
  • Audio recording
  • Inserting websites and images.

You can always search the internet to find different types of apps for demonstrations, reviews and prices.

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