Degree In Sight

Reading tips

In her first year of graduate school, Yeshiva University clinical psychology student Sabrina Esbitt read as many as 12 chapters and 15 professional articles a week. Now in her third year, she has fewer classes but she's still reading a lot, picking up articles related to her practicum and research while also keeping up with broader trends by browsing such publications as American Psychologist.

That's not uncommon for psychology graduate students. According to a study published in Teaching and Education in Professional Psychology (Vol. 3, No. 4), psychology professors assign an average of 330 pages of reading a week. Grad students, however, only do about half of their assigned reading, according to the study.

All that reading can seem daunting — and easy to let slide — but there are ways to make it more manageable and productive, says psychologist Tara Kuther, PhD, a psychology professor at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and author of "Surviving Graduate School in Psychology: A Pocket Mentor" (APA, 2008).

Here are some suggestions for tackling that mountain of reading:

  • Prioritize. Decide what to read thoroughly and what to skim by identifying the courses you need to work the hardest in, says Kuther. In courses you are acing, browse the reading well enough to bring a few critical questions to class, she says. Read thoroughly for classes where you need the extra help.

  • Set goals. Ian McDonough, a grad student in the Memory Research Laboratory at the University of Chicago, keeps up with his research reading by maintaining a list of articles and aiming to read at least one a day. He also assigns readings to his research assistants, which they discuss at weekly meetings. "Because I am in charge of the meetings, it forces me to read the article each week," he says.

  • Read actively. Use the SQ3R method: Survey, question, read, recite, review. Reading experts agree it's the best way to deeply comprehend a text. Here's the basic strategy:

    - Survey the chapter by scanning headings, subheads, graphics, captions, and bolded or italicized words. Skim the beginning and end of the chapter.

    - Question: Write down questions for each section, based on what you skimmed.

    - Read each section and look for answers to your questions.

    - Recite: Look away from the text and say aloud the answers to your questions. Write your answers down, providing examples to support it.

    - Review your notes: Identify the main points of the assignment and write a brief summary

    At first, the method may seem more time-consuming than reading a text straight through, but it's more efficient because you'll retain more of what you read, says Kuther. A study published last year in Psychological Science (Vol. 20, No. 4), showed that college students who used a pared-down version of the method — focused just on the 3Rs — remembered more of a text a week later than when they used a re-reading or note-taking strategy, and the 3R technique took less time.

  • Skim when needed. When the reading deluge is simply too great for SQ3R, don't skip the reading; skim it. Although several older studies find that people retain far less information from skimming than reading at their normal pace, a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 15, No. 3) showed that people can recall more important concepts after skimming an entire text compared with simply reading half the text at a normal pace. The authors concluded that skimming can be effective for capturing the main points of a text but that it sacrifices a deeper understanding. That's why you should reserve the practice for topics you already have a good grasp of or for reading from classes you're doing well in.

  • Harness technology. Fielding Graduate University clinical psychology student Shari Kim downloads books and articles onto her iPhone and reads them on the go. Kim also uses SpeakIt!, an application that reads texts aloud, to listen to journal articles and books while she drives. There are downsides to listening, however. For one, it's slower than reading and nearly impossible to skim or skip around. In addition, research finds that people process spoken and written language differently: Listening requires more working memory than reading, so some people may find that they retain more from reading than from listening, or vice versa. Other programs, such as EndNote, OneNote and Evernote, can help organize your reading notes, says Kuther. You can type or paste notes, figures, references and photos into them, and they index the data so you can search for them later.

  • Toss your highlighter. Grad students often use highlighting or underlining as a crutch, says Kuther. Chances are, she says, you're highlighting what you should learn, instead of learning it.

Mastering these steps to fine-tune your reading skills will help you throughout your career, says Mark R. McMinn, PhD, a psychology professor at George Fox University. "With the proliferation of journals and an ever-expanding literature, deciding what to skim and what to dive into is a skill that every graduate student needs to master," he says.

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.