How to master your readings and get better marks – Your questions answered by our PLAs

Being at uni means you’ll have a lot of readings to get through. So how can you make the best use of your time? Our PLAs (Peer Learning Advisors) understand the challenges of uni study, and they’re here to help.

La Trobe’s talented PLAs have answered some of your most common questions about effective reading skills. Follow their practical tips and strategies to help you become more confident with your course readings and research, and get better grades!

1. I want to take notes from my readings, but I’m confused about where to start.

Clayton: I find it useful to print out any important readings and annotate them as you read. Highlight anything that jumps out as interesting or potentially important for you to use later on in your assignments or exams. This will help you break down the reading to determine what is most important to you without being stuck on other information.

Samantha: After reading the piece, imagine that you are explaining what you just read to a close family member or friend. Write this down, using the simplest terminology possible and getting the main point across in as little words as you can. Do you think your family member or friend would understand what you have explained? After this, you can build on your notes, perhaps adding in extra information that your lecturer or tutor has emphasised as important.

2. I find it difficult to read text on the computer screen. I don’t have a printer at home. What can I do to make reading easier?

Jacqulyn: Try using an e-reader, if you have one you can access of course. The screen is made to go easy on the eyes. Otherwise make sure you adjust your screen brightness settings and increase the size of the font. Take regular breaks from reading on the screen. 

Amy: If your device allows you to, try switching to a dark mode so the background is black and the text is white. You can also use the text-to-speech function in Word if you are trying to slog through a Word document and need a change of pace.

Beata: There are many useful tools that can make reading easier. The following are some free Chrome extensions that I have used and found helpful for reading on the web:

  • Visor – reading aid overlay that includes a focusing feature and screen dimming
  • AlphaText – allows you to customise the formatting of web pages (e.g., changing font style, colour and size, background and text colour, and removing distracting images and videos)
  • Weava Highlighter or Beanote – enable you to highlight text on web pages and imported PDFs, and attach comments to these highlights, which can be revisited on the web page, or viewed, managed and exported through the extension
  • Read Aloud: A Text to Speech Voice Reader – works with websites and PDFs

I would recommend trying some out to find out what works for you. I also frequently use Ctrl+F (or Cmd+F) to quickly locate key words in texts.

3. Reading makes me exhausted. I feel like I keep reading the same sentence over and over again, without understanding anything…

Kate: I find reading after a while very tiring. Something I prefer is having the content read to me. If I save a journal article or chapter from an online textbook to my desktop and then open it in browser, I can click ‘read aloud’ on whatever section I have highlighted. This helps me comprehend large amounts of writing without losing focus.

Thomas: When this happens to me, I know it’s time for a break. I find going for a walk, eating some food or doing some eye stretches helps. A few friends like using the Pomodoro method too.

4. I understand the content, but when it comes time to write my assignment I can’t remember where I got the information from. I feel like I’m spending too much time referencing.

Tenzin: I recommend learning how to use a referencing tool, such as Zotero. While these tools are not perfect, you can create libraries that hold all your sources, and add references straight into your piece or bibliography. It makes assignments that require dozens of references super streamlined.

Marcus: I find it useful to reference as I go by writing the name of the author and copying and pasting a URL link and then highlighting it, so I don’t forget to fix it after I have finished writing. This helps not to distract my thought process while writing but also makes it slightly less difficult to delete references that I may no longer need. Another useful tool is Endnote.

5. I feel overwhelmed looking at the number of resources I’m supposed to read, and I don’t know where to begin.

Clayton: Generally, a Subject Learning Guide contains a schedule of intended learning activities where it tells you specifically what module, readings, and assessments tasks you will be working on. This always helps me realise what readings are most important and those I should place more emphasis on reading!

Kate: I make sure I look at the class material and required readings, then if I have extra time, I look at the recommended material. It’s really important to manage your time on these readings and prioritise the material where needed.

6. I’m okay with reading the articles, but I often worry that I haven’t really understood the exact meaning.

Aimee:  A helpful way of demonstrating my understanding to myself is to try to explain the article to a 5-year-old! It sounds dorky but it really does work! Sometimes breaking down the jargon and simplifying the words can help with understanding.

Jacqulyn: I suggest having a talk with a classmate if it is a subject reading, as they will have read it (or should have). You can also run it past your tutor or lecturer. Tell them I was reading about X, Y, or Z, and this is the impression I got — does that sound about right? Even if they don’t know exactly, they might be able to give you some advice.

7. Is it really necessary to do all the course readings? What happens if I don’t?

Amy: That depends entirely on the course. Sometimes, it is absolutely essential, and you will miss key information if you don’t. Other times, it is designed to supplement the material you already get taught in lectures and tutorials and will help you deepen your understanding of a concept. Often, readings will put the information in a different way, and one of the best ways to learn something is to hear it explained in a multitude of ways. The consequences of not doing the readings depends on these factors. But in any case, the person assigning you the readings isn’t doing it to waste your time — they’re very smart people and they just want you to succeed. It’s up to you if you take them up on their suggestions for how you can be successful in their course.

8. I love reading! I spend way too much time looking for resources and reading articles, and then I run out of time to write…

Jacqulyn: Getting lost down a rabbit hole is all well and good (and often lots of fun!) but an important part of assignment writing is knowing when to stop. Think about using the library’s assessment planner tool or breaking down your time clearly so you know when to stop looking. If you find some really cool unrelated articles, then stash them aside in a folder for your personal reading later.

Amy: Reading widely is fantastic, but you’ve got to make sure you can reel yourself back in and do the writing. I recommend keeping an essay plan, fill it out with a list of the kind of resources you’ll need for each section (maybe a key definition in the introduction, maybe a piece of evidence for paragraph 1, etc.). Then, as you find the resources you need you can tick them off. When you’ve got all the necessary components, do your first draft. After that, then you can look at your writing and see if it needs more resources or if you’ve missed anything and go back to your readings. Rinse and repeat until you have a beautiful, well researched and well written paper.

9. English isn’t my first language. Do you have any advice to help me with understanding the text?

Amy: Skim the whole resource first to get the general gist of what it’s saying. This will help you look for contextual cues to aid you in understanding any words or ideas that don’t make sense, and circle/highlight anything you want to come back to later as you go. After that, look up anything that didn’t make sense, make note of it, then skim again. As a post-reading exercise, try writing a little summary of the resource in your own words. (This is also good advice for science students or anyone else who deals with articles that have lots of technical jargon! Take it slow, it’s okay to not get it fully at first, break it into small pieces.)

10. The articles I’ve been reading are all really well-written. I feel like my own writing is not as good. Why can’t I just use lots of quotes in my assignment?

Amy: There is a simple answer to this and a more complicated one. The simple answer is academic integrity. Since the work that you are referencing is somebody else’s, to fill your essay with quotes rather than your own ideas is plagiarism which can land you in serious trouble.

The other answer is that the people marking your essay want to see your own understanding of the text and how it relates to your topic and subject material. Being able to summarise an academic article in your own words is an incredibly valuable skill. Not only will your teacher appreciate it, you will understand the content better as well.

Hannah: While the strategic placement of a quote within an assignment is acceptable from time to time, your teachers want to see how you have comprehended the topic. This means relying too heavily on quotes will not adequately demonstrate your abilities as a student. They want to see you in the assignment! Paraphrasing is an excellent skill to hone — this is when you take information and write it in your own words, making sure to reference it appropriately. 

Amy: The people who write articles have spent decades becoming excellent writers, and even then, the peer-review process makes it so that their manuscripts get edited and edited over and over again until they are considered perfect enough for the public eye and get published as the final article you see as a student. Comparing your own abilities to that is not fair — you would think you’re bad at running too if you were comparing yourself to Usain Bolt. It’s important to keep our expectations realistic, if you’re a first-year student, you can only be expected to write like a first-year student. Your teachers and your markers know this and are not expecting you to deliver a journal article. Rather, they want you to hone your own writing abilities, and show your understanding of the content. Think of it this way — quotes show your ability to type, paraphrasing shows your ability to write.

Still have questions?

For more assessment questions and uni life advice, drop in for a chat with one of our wonderful PLAs on Zoom! Go to the Learning Hub LMS to access the link and see available times.