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Effective Reading

Our top tips and advice on getting the most from your reading, taking effective notes from journal article and identifying links between sources.
Effective Reading

Learn how to skim, scan and take effective notes from the different types of literature you'll encounter as a university student.


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Introduction to reading effectively

Much of the focus at University is about writing, but an often overlooked component of academic success is reading. Reading is a skill like any other that can (and should!) be developed throughout life.

Your relationship with reading

You should begin by creating an environment that is conducive to efficient and effective reading. To help build the best environment for your reading to be successful, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do I study best? Do I prefer the library? A coffee shop? Or somewhere else? Try to read in a physical space that supports your studying and minimises the chance of you becoming distracted.
  • How will you minimise distractions? Do you need to turn your phone off?
  • What is the best time of day for you to study? How are you going to protect this time?
  • How long can you study for before taking a break?
  • What is the recommended reading for your course? - See Reading at University to find out about course reading lists.

Answering these questions will help you to utilise your time more effectively and increase your focus, therefore making your reading more purposeful.

Getting to know your reading

Begin by reading the abstract of your chosen article and then follow this up by skimming the article to get a broad overview of key findings/outcomes/conclusions. In the case of textbooks, there won't be an abstract but it's still worth skimming the chapter's sub-headings and any diagrams for indicators of key points/conclusions.

Following this you should make a decision about whether or not to read the article in more detail. Your initial skimming of the text should act as check to ensure that the reading will be fit for your purpose. To help with this, think about the following:

  • Why are you choosing this article/textbook to read?
  • What does it contribute to your research?
  • What particular key questions is the reading going to enable you to answer?

Reading journal articles

Navigating journal articles

Journal article layout

Familiarising yourself with the standard layout of a journal article is a key step in developing your approach to academic reading, as it allows you to quickly identify key points of information and gain an overview of the content and detail that the article will cover. When reading a journal article, look out for:

This screenshot shows how the first page of a journal article can be quickly split into key sections, including the title, abstract, keywords and authors. The abstract is particularly useful in helping you to determine if the article is relevant to your purpose for reading, and whether it is likely to provide useful evidence for your writing.

Reading article abstracts

The abstract acts as a synopsis for the academic paper - it gives an overview of the aims for the research project, the theoretical motivations or methods used, as well as an indication of the results and key findings. The abstract is your first opportunity when reading to decide if an article will be relevant, and will help to determine how you read. For example, if the abstract closely relates to your topic of interest and mentions findings that provide evidence for one of your key ideas, then you can earmark the article for a closer, more detailed read. If, however, the article is on a topic related to your writing, but deals with a context or population that is not relevant, you may decide that a skim read of the content is all that is needed. 

There are four key elements to look for in any journal article abstract to help inform you decision of how the text should be read:

1. Look for key terms and their synonyms. Using the article title, and your knowledge of the subject from your wider reading and lecture notes, skim read the article for key words that link together or form categories. Is there a broad range of terms (suggesting the article covers multiple ideas or topics) or are the key terms focused around key themes (suggesting the article will go into detail and stay focused)?

2. Look for verbs of action. Verbs will set out how the author will build and progress their argument. Words like 'explore' and 'investigate' suggest an article is more of an enquiry and may not reach a firm conclusion. In contrast, an abstract that includes verbs such as 'test' and 'analyse' suggest that the article will focus on generating and discussing a data set. Use these terms to help decide whether the article is the type of research project that fits your area of interest.

3. Look for transition signals (linking words). These terms show how the author moves from one point to another. If an article uses linking words related to time, it is likely that the paper will move through a project or topic chronologically. Words such as 'in contrast', 'conversely' or 'however' will suggest disagreement in the literature, and a possible alternative view on a topic from the article you are reading.

4. Find the research questions. Look for questions or aims - these are a kind of mission statement that set out what the article hoped to achieve. As the abstract is the last thing an author writes, these will always clearly match the content of the article.

Here's an example of how we might annotate an article abstract by grouping together key terms and their synonyms:

Development of efficient techniques for monitoring wildlife is a priority in the Arctic, where the impacts of climate change are acute and remoteness and logistical constraints hinder access. We evaluated high resolution satellite imagery as a tool to track the distribution and abundance of polar bears. We examined satellite images of a small island in Foxe Basin, Canada, occupied by a high density of bears during the summer ice-free season. Bears were distinguished from other light-colored spots by comparing images collected on different dates. A sample of ground-truthed points demonstrated that we accurately classified bears. Independent observers reviewed images and a population estimate was obtained using mark–recapture models. This estimate (^NN: 94; 95% Confidence Interval: 92–105) was remarkably similar to an abundance estimate derived from a line transect aerial survey conducted a few days earlier (^NN: 102; 95% CI: 69–152). Our findings suggest that satellite imagery is a promising tool for monitoring polar bears on land, with implications for use with other Arctic wildlife. Large scale applications may require development of automated detection processes to expedite review and analysis. Future research should assess the utility of multi-spectral imagery and examine sites with different environmental characteristics.

We can see that four clear themes or categories emerge from the abstract: 

Aim of study Methods Population/sample Context
monitoring wildlife; distribution; abundance; population estimate; abundance estimate; polar bears on land high resolution satellite imagery; satellite images; satellite imagery; multi-spectral imagery  polar bears; high density of bears; accurately classified bears; polar bears on land climate change; Foxe Basin, Canada; environmental characteristics

By categorising the key words in this way, we can create a clear overview of the content of the article, and make an informed decision about if and how the article will be relevant.

Reading strategies


The SQ3R method is a reading strategy that has been designed to aid with the understanding and retention of information. It can help to make your reading more efficient and effective by creating an active engagement between yourself and the text.

There are 5 steps to this strategy:

1. Survey the text - this is the same as 'getting to know your reading'. Skim the text paying attention to the following:

  • Titles and sub-headings - these indicate the primary content within a piece of text and support your navigation of the reading.
  • Images/graphs - highlight key content.
  • Introductions, conclusions and any summaries - may help to identify the purpose of the article, as well as highlighting key debates, challenges and outcomes.

The aim of this step is to get a general idea of what you are going to read and should take about 10 minutes.

2. Question the text - generate a series of questions that you want to answer when you read the text. This step helps improve your concentration by making your reading (and notetaking) more purposeful.

If you're struggling to come up with some questions, try thinking about how the headings/subheadings and how they could be changed into a question by thinking about some of the following: who, what, why, how etc. For example: "Teaching reading to undergraduates" becomes "How did the researchers approach teaching reading to undergraduates?"

3. Read the text - paying specific attention to answering your questions. The purpose of this step is to develop understanding - make notes (see "Active note taking" [insert hyperlink to notetaking guide] for more information) and be prepared to reread anything you don't understand.

4. Recite - repeat the information you have learned. This begins the process of transferring information from your short term memory to your long term memory.

This step also helps you to clarify if you've understood everything that you've read,

5. Review ­- this is your opportunity to return to the text and address any gaps in your understanding.

Consider - have you answered all your questions? Is there anything that you don't understand about the reading/something in your notes?

Returning to the reading and reviewing your notes also helps long term retention of information, which makes this a really great method of reading for both assignments and revision/exams.

Taking notes from reading

Using a standardised approach in your note taking is an excellent way of helping to keep track of everything you've read and organise your notes.

The primary benefit of adopting this approach is that by evaluating all of your reading on the same criteria, it will be much easier to identify similarities and differences between your readings, which is an important part of critical writing.

Below are three analysis tables from Cottrell (2011) to help guide your reading, notetaking and develop your criticality:

You are also free to develop your own analysis tables with your own criteria that are more tailored to your discipline or the demands of a particular assignment!

Here are two more examples of how you might structure your notetaking using PEP tables and appraisal grids:

Synthesising your reading

To succeed at university it is essential that you go beyond just reiterating what others have said and start to integrate information from multiple sources: this is synthesis. Including synthesis in your writing demonstrates your understanding and allows you to draw your own conclusions.

So what's the difference between summary and synthesis?

  • Summary:
    • Reiterates what an author has said/found
    • Talks about pieces of evidence in isolation from one another
    • Demonstrates an overview of understanding and meaning
  • Synthesis:
    • Reiterates what an author has said/found and discusses this in context with the work of others to draw distinct conclusions
    • Comparison and contrast is central to the piece of writing. 
    • Evidence is rarely presented in isolation; multiple sources will be combined to generate a coherent structure and argument. This may lead to the author saying something new/original informed by the pre-existing literature.   

One quick question you can ask yourself to check if you are synthesising your reading is: Am I creating links between these texts that will enable me to produce a cohesive response?

If you're concerned that you are producing a list of summaries, rather than synthesis, it would be good to revisit your reading/notes/analysis tables and identify some more explicit areas of comparison

Top tip: Create a mindmap
Making a spider-diagram can be a really effective way of literally drawing links between your readings! Don't worry if you're not an artist - you can use Mindview software to create mindmaps on your computer. Visit the Assistive Technology pages for information on training workshops and how-to videos for this software tool. 

Top tips

Here are our five top tips to becoming more effective in your academic reading:

1. Know yourself - consider which factors contribute to success in your reading.

2. Get to know your reading - make sure your reading is fit for purpose. Think about what you are hoping to obtain from each text you read; from a quick skim does it look like you'll find the information you want?

3. SQ3R - use the SQ3R strategy to make your reading more efficient, effective and purposeful.

4. Organise your reading - make use of analysis tables to help guide your notetaking and organise what you've read.

5. Synthesise - this is essential for academic success! Ensure that you are identifying links between your various readings to help you produce an integrated written response with distinct and coherent conclusions.