Reading Journal Articles Effectively

Issue 3 - six steps for students in the humanities, arts and social sciences

Welcome to this week's Monday issue of the Curiosity Journal. Every Monday, I share a post with my thoughts and advice on how students can improve their productivity, learning and academic wellbeing. Subscribe here to get new issues delivered straight to your inbox each week.

The return to university might look very different right now, but the start of the academic year is here once again.

For me, the first few weeks always felt like the calm before the storm. The panic of falling behind hasn't settled in just yet, but there are only a few weeks until the reading assignments start to pile up.

My undergraduate and master's degrees were a long exercise in learning to read cases, books and mostly journal articles in a way that would extract the most useful information from the text.

With journal articles, I quickly learned that it’s easy to get lost in the sauce when your approach is to immediately jump into lengthy or difficult reading. Unlike in scientific journals where the standard is that articles have clearly marked "Discussion" or "Methods" section, articles in the humanities, arts and social sciences don't have a strict format.

Some don't have sections and subheadings at all, so you have to train yourself to achieve the difficult task of following the writer's argument, making sense of how it's constructed, from beginning to end.

I struggled with reading effectively in my first and second years. When you have a lot of reading to do, a quick skim over the text isn't enough but you don’t have hours and hours to spend on each individual reading.

The aim of effective reading is to achieve the depth you need to understand the text and how it relates to your class, in an amount of time that at least lets you try to do the same for all your other reading assignments.

By third year—through trial, error, frustration and breakthrough moments—I'd come up with an effective process for reading that helped me navigate the different types of non-scientific articles I was assigned.

Check out how I explain my process in this vlog (8:04-9:29).

The following process is useful if you're a new university student having your first experience of reading academic journal articles, or if you're a returning student who wants a more systematic and structured approach to reading.

1. Prepare

This is a step that I didn't include in the above vlog, which I filmed in my third year, but I came to learn in my master’s year that it’s crucial.

Have a list of the questions you're trying answer by using this article. Your lecturer or tutor may have assigned some questions for discussion in class. Have these ready and visible so you know why you're reading a particular article. Also, try to understand what the questions are asking you to do—what kind of information they're looking for from you. This will help prime your mind to spot the relevant passages in the article.

Preparing with questions in this way helps you keep the reading session active and targeted. Allow your mind to work like a miner strategically and methodically digging for diamonds, not a sponge that absorbs any liquid but struggles to retain it. Essentially, your reading time can go wasted when you slip into a passive approach because you started unprepared.

If your class tutor hasn't assigned you specific questions, make some up for yourself. You can base your self-assigned questions on your class content. Or, you can make them about the reading itself. If you take the latter route, here are some example questions:

  • What do I already know that could help me to understand this article better?

  • How does this article relate to the other assigned readings?

  • What is the writer arguing/contributing to the discussion?

  • Why would the writer make this argument/contribution?

  • What problem is this writer trying to address or solve?

  • What is the writer trying to challenge or reinforce?

  • Would I argue differently?

2. Overview

The first parts you need to read are the article's abstract, introduction and conclusion (the AIC method).

When you do this, instead of jumping straight into the writer's argument, you give yourself an overview of what's contained in the whole article. This helps prime your mind for what's ahead so you can pay better attention to it and understand which of your assigned questions this article will be most useful for answering.

3. Pinpoint

When you're done with the AIC, select the sections and subheadings you think will be useful and prioritise them by importance, guided by your questions.

This is the skimming step, where you're looking over the whole text to see where the information is and how the discussion in the article is constructed. Some articles will have a clear structure with distinct parts separated by subheadings. But if you've been assigned one that (annoyingly) doesn't have clearly signalled sections and subheadings, you'll need to pay more attention, maybe adding in your own subheadings, so skimming may take longer.

4. Scannotate

This is a portmanteau of the words "scan" and "annotate". Scanning is a more targeted mode of reading than the skimming you did in step 3.

Ideally, you'd read every word of the article closely and deeply. Realistically, you'll read the section you prioritised as most important more closely than the section you've placed as least important.

At this stage (again, guided by your questions) look out for keywords and passages in your pinpointed sections. Read around these words/passages, some sentences before and after, to understand them in context.

You can try reading for a set number of minutes, then check-in with yourself: are you understanding what you're reading and making progress on your questions?

Annotating—making notes—as you go along will keep the reading process active. To effectively engage with the text, make sure these notes are as much in your own words as possible.

Your annotations don't have to be long sentences, but if there are times when you want to elaborate, you can extend them in a notebook or document.

5. Concept Map

This step forms an early stage in organising what you've read in a way that makes sense to you. When the ideas in the article start coming together into answers for your questions, you can explore how the different bits of information relate to one another with a mind map. The centre of the map can be one of your questions or it can be a single idea in the article that you want to pick apart and explore further.

As you're mapping your thoughts, you're breaking down the article to build up your understanding of it.

6. Tracking

The point of effective reading is to make the process active and engaging, so you can extract as much useful information out of the article as possible. A key part of doing this successfully is maintaining your focus.

As you read, you can use your pen or finger to keep track of your pace and place. You want to read at a speed that allows you to make sense of the words but doesn't keep you on a single section for too long. If there's a part that's particularly challenging, give yourself an indication—a highlight, star or sticky note—to come back to it later, if possible.

This step is one of those little tips that's easy to overlook as you get more comfortable with reading in general, but it's a helpful way for training yourself to focus on challenging articles.

So, these are my six steps for effectively reading journal articles in the humanities, arts and social sciences students. As your term progresses, reading assignments may be difficult and the struggle may be real, but you'll at least have a systematic process for tackling them rather than the haphazard approach most students tend to take.

I'd love to hear from you if you use these steps, find them useful or add your own tweaks.

Leave a comment

Until Thursday, onwards and upwards.


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