Reading Strategies for Assignments

Returning to education can be a daunting prospect for adults who have been out of the education system for a number of years due to work and raising a family.  Over the past decade, more and more adults have returned to education because of a need to change career directions, to improve their employability, to increase chances of promotion within their current line of work, or to generally improve their skills.  Because of the array of reasons why an adult chooses to return to education and the different learning environments within which they can participate, this article has been written for the audience of adults who are planning a return to higher education e.g degree and post graduate level.  This article assumes that adults are able to read well, but not sure how to apply reading within academic learning contexts.  This article has been written based on this author’s learning experiences as an undergraduate and post graduate student.

Reading is a fundamental learning activity upon which other learning activities can be built, ideas can be developed, and results can be analysed given the appropriate data organisation and presentation skills are present.  Reading for academic purposes is a step wise process, with each step involving reading and examining resources in increasing detail.  It is advisable to treat reading as a step wise process because if a learner examines a research paper without an understanding of how a particular research paper could help achieve a learner’s goals then the learner could end up confused and not understanding what they are supposed to achieve.  Reading is the fundamental aspect of any assignment and at post graduate level especially, students are expected to learn and form ideas based on the material that they have read: from books, from journals, from research papers, and from authentic and reliable websites. It is, therefore, important to understand the different levels of reading and the different ways in which printed and online material can be comprehended. It should be noted however that some assignments can be very practical in nature, which would require less reading and less comprehension of text; other assignments can based on discussion and arguments, which would require a substantial level of reading across and comprehension of multiple resources in order to develop arguments and discuss ideas and those arguments at the appropriate level.  This article will carefully take the learner through a step wise process of being able to read for learning regarding an assignment predominated by the requirement of being able to develop and provide arguments and discussion.

The initial reading exercise is to understand the assignment because, after all, how can a learner know what reading material to examine if they do not understand what it is they are looking for?  Reading through the assignment brief several times will construct a picture of the areas within which the learner needs to investigate in order to develop and present their arguments and discussions.  Once the areas of research have been developed, the second objective is to collect the necessary resources including books, journals, research papers, and reliable websites.  How a learner should search for relevant material is beyond the scope of this article; however, it is expected that a learner will gather a large amount of resources in order to develop and evidence their arguments.  It is therefore important to be able to organise and structure the reading process so that the reading is performed in a logical fashion and to therefore facilitate the development of arguments. 

The first reading technique that should be used, therefore, is reading for relevancy and organisation. Reading for relevancy means skimming through each resource to make sure that each resource is relevant to at least one research theme or area. If it is not relevant, then the resource should be returned to where it came from, or recycled; if kept and read through, the learner might become confused. To achieve reading for relevancy, use the skimming technique also to read through the contents and index pages of a book or journal and the abstract and introduction sections of a research paper or specific journal article.  The introduction section will set the scene of any piece of research and the abstract will provide a brief view of the overall research aim, methodology, results, and some of the important outcomes.  Reading for organisation goes hand in hand with reading for relevancy: a resource identified as relevant should then be assigned to a research theme. For example, on the Masters Degree this author’s main research comprised of four or five different research themes so each relevant resource was assigned at least one theme.  Establishing research themes is important for organising the reading material, achieved by reading the assignment brief initially: the learner needs to understand what it is they are searching for before they begin searching for relevant literature.

Once all the documents have been assessed for relevance and organised into different themes, the next reading comprehension level is to read for analysis and possible bias. Reading for analysis means to read and understand each resource; for example, when this author reads a research paper, it is examined for how it builds on previous research and work, the methods used for doing the research, what the results are, and the discussion of such results. So when the learner reads for analysis, the learner should read how a research was completed, why the research was done in the first place, what the results were, how the results formed the discussion and what the research outcomes were.  This can not be achieved by reading a research paper or journal article in one setting; it is a process of reading and re reading for understanding of the research, and then jumping between different sections to see how they relate their discussions to the results found.  Not only would this increase the learner’s understanding of the research paper content, but could also inform how the learner should write their research paper. Reading for bias goes hand in hand with analysis; each research paper sometimes produces different results and outcomes depending on the methodology and data analysis techniques used.  Each research paper will either present a negative outcome or a positive outcome though sometimes research can prove inconclusive.  The learner should decide what type of result a research paper presents, and to think about why the research would produce such results. This can help to begin to build arguments and discussions.

The next level of reading is to read for synthesis and argument building where arguments and discussion can begin to form at their highest level through comparing the ideas and results of different authors to each other, note the contrast of methodologies, and how they feel that future research within the area should proceed.  Synthesis is the process of combining different ideas of different authors together to form new approaches or new ideas that can be used to back the learner’s ideas and arguments.  Reading at this level begins with comparing the results and discussions of each research paper; from this, similarities and contradictions can be observed.  These similarities can be connected to each other to form an argument or hypothesis; similarly, contradictions could also be connected to form another argument or hypothesis.

Once all these levels have been explored, the learner should be in a very good position to write a comprehensive research paper or assignment.  Comprehensive in that the learner presents in their work a logical sequence of arguments and ideas that have been built by the analysis and synthesis of the work of others.  The idea therefore is not to present a series of descriptions, but well thought out arguments built on the evidence presented in earlier relevant pieces of work.  It does take a while to master the academic skills needed to write and present an effective argument or paper, but the earlier these skills are understood and used, the quicker the learner will be able to complete papers to a high level.