Undergraduate Column: Can We Talk about Reading?

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By Artie O’Leary

I have only experienced conversations about reading twice in my entire academic career. I don’t mean that we didn’t talk about the course readings themselves in my classes, we’ve talked quite a bit in many classes about the content of the pieces assigned. But these conversations often focused on content alone: What did the writer say? How is what the writer said different from what another writer said? How did what the writer say about the topic help me to understand important information related to the focus of the class?

In my experience, we have not talked about how to read analytically or how to effectively read and understand a scientific essay that is full of important data. I am currently studying psychology, and the prospective field I wish to go into is fast paced, changing, and diverse. Because of this, I often feel intimidated by journal articles. Sometimes I have no idea what the authors are talking about.

Discussion of how to effectively read different formats of text in a classroom setting have been scarce in my career, but when conversations about reading happen, I find the instruction and dialogue to be extremely helpful.

During my American lit course, I was taught to analyze themes and contextual clues in literature, and in my social psychology course how to read a scientific article. Surprisingly, the similarity of these reading strategies has helped me to analyze written material, which has helped me be successful when working on my research. The in-class conversations I had with my professors were extremely helpful, introducing me to, for instance, the 5W1H method (which asks: what, where, why, when, who, & how) and the ICM (or “Information Collection Method,” which asks similar sorts of questions). Both courses taught me the importance of how to read critically, asking a series of questions as I go about the different materials I encountered:

  • What is the point the author is making?
  • How does the author deliver their argument/How are they conducting their research?
  • Why has the author framed their argument this way?
  • When was the article published—does the study show signs of being dated?

These questions helped me to think aobut how the text was composed, the audience it was addressing, and how that rhetorical information shaped the ay data was presented.

When I am reading new material, I can also use these questions to help me annotate the source. This way I can keep an active set of notes for each text I have read. I typically take these notes and turn them into an annotated bibliography, which I use to organize the sources I have read. Along with the annotated bibliography, I also keep detailed notes about the questions generated through using the 5W1H or ICM. I can keep track of the gaps in my own personal knowledge, which helps me be successful when further researching a topic.

In my social psychology and research methods class, my professor often spoke to us about how to be objective about written material so I asked the same question: What reading tips do you have for approaching articles? Both professors spoke about evaluating the time period of when the article was published (Was it 5 years ago or longer?), whether or not the person had a Ph.D. (What expertise does this person have?), and to read the introduction, method, and conclusion (How does the method and finding respond to findings in the field?). Both professors spoke at length about the importance of current research that is being publish.

My professors have taught me there are times when I need to be a critical reader, evaluating the source for how it contributes to an ongoing research-based conversation in the field of psychology. Pulling a journal article from a library database does not mean that the methodology has been settled or that the findings can be applied in every circumstance. Before learning this, I wondered why would I need to check the expertise of an author on an article that I would pull from a database. Aren’t library databases a secure place to retrieve information? My professor explained that her students do not possess the expertise yet to realize what flawed research may looks like. She said to combat this, we have to look for where, who, and what institution this research is coming from.

Like writing, reading is a grow as you go experience. I still often feel intimidated by certain articles. There are many times I have read an article for content, but I feel like I’m missing the larger conversation in the field. When professors share how they read, it is often incredibly helpful for a project. Information collection methods or question-asking reading strategies, like the 5W1H, are just the tip of the iceberg for processing written material.

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