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Making the most of textbook reading?

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Joanna Hughes :
The typical college student reads at a rate of 450 words per minute, according to the results of a speed-reading study by Staples. The world speed reading champion? 4,700. That's more than ten times as many words in a single minute! The value of closing this gap becomes very clear when you factor in the massive reading assignments many grad students face throughout their studies. Luckily, there are some things you can do to read more effectively and efficiently. And while you may not have a speed reading title in your future, these give techniques can help you accelerate your reading pace without sacrificing comprehension or retention.
1. Eliminate Distractions
Did you know that multitasking is pretty much one big myth? In fact, a growing body of research points to the fact that attempting to juggle multiple tasks at once can have detrimental effects. Not only do distractions lead to decreased productivity, but they can even cause a 10-point IQ drop-the equivalent of losing a full night's sleep! In our techno-centric world, electronic interruptions have changed the way we go about life, and not in a good way-at least when it comes to concentrating on schoolwork. The takeaway? Turn off your ringer and other notifications and only check in during designated break times.
2. Preview the Reading
If you're like most students, staring down an 80-page reading assignment can be overwhelming. Before digging in, set yourself up for a more successful, active reading experience by previewing the material.
Begin by reading each chapter's title, introduction, and headings, subheadings and summaries. This helps establish a framework for what to expect. Ask yourself why the topic is relevant, and what important concepts you're expected to learn along the way.
While this task takes less than 10 minutes, it has significant payoffs in terms of helping you connect to the material as a reader.
3. Read Back to Front
While you wouldn't dream of cracking open the latest bestselling thriller or action novel and skipping straight to the end, reading a textbook is an entirely different story. To further enhance your understanding of a chapter's most important concepts, start by reviewing the questions at the end of the chapter. As a complement to previewing, this non-chronological approach will help you identify the "big ideas," connect them together, and focus your attention exactly where it needs to be from the get-go.
4. Start Skimming and Scamming
Children initially learn to read by sounding out letters and words. While this is a necessary practice for new readers, it amounts to wasted time for skilled readers. Enter two different yet related reading techniques: Skimming and scamming.
Instead of sounding out every unique word within the context of an ordered sentence, practice focusing on chunks of words instead. Called skimming, this allows readers to quickly take in main ideas and overall meaning without bothering with time-wasting filler words. Scanning, meanwhile, is the act of looking for a specific piece of information within a block of text.
While both of these techniques take practice, they not only improve how quickly you get through the material, but also how effectively you retain key points. Need more tips on these useful reading strategies? Check out HowToLearn's handy how-to on skimming and scanning.
5. Take Note...Literally
Note-taking is a critical part of the textbook reading process. Why? Because the act of recording the material in your own words can help you order your thoughts and enhance your understanding. Not to mention that when reviewing later, you won't have to read through the entire chapter again. Rather, you can simply rely on your notes.
As you progress through future coursework which touches on the same material, well-kept notes have the potential to become an invaluable time-saving resource.
One caveat? Be sure to keep a thorough record of where your notes come from. If you do need a more thorough review, handy access to the author, title, and page number will prevent major frustration.
While reading assignments are part of any college student's experience, graduate students can expect a much greater workload-sometimes as much as three times more material-than they encountered during their undergraduate years. Learning to read actively and purposely while committing to thorough note-taking is an invaluable part of tackling your textbooks and succeeding in school.

(Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family).

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