I remember as an undergrad (and even as a master’s!) student thinking that it took me FOREVER to read academic articles and that I'd never learn how to read journal articles effectively. Also, once I read them, oftentimes I felt like I didn’t understand or retain anything and like I was just wasting my time.
One girl in my master’s cohort straight up asked our programme director—‘how do I actually read journal articles?’. Our director didn’t respond particularly helpfully or kindly, if I’m honest. So, to save yourself having to ask a high-level academic this question, I’ve compiled my tips here.
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Now that I’ve been doing it for years, I finally feel like I have the hang of reading academic articles efficiently. Here are my top tips for reading journal articles, conference papers, and books more quickly (and to actually remember and understand what you read).
I won’t go through any specific ‘speed reading’ techniques. This article is for average students who just want to read journal articles more effectively. Read on to figure out how you can become a more efficient and effective academic reader!
If the abstract is written well, you shouldn’t really need to even read the rest of the paper to know what it’s about and its main arguments (though, you still should). The abstract should include an introduction to the topic, the paper’s methods, the results, and a summary of its discussion and conclusions. This will give you a feel of what to look out for as you read the rest of the paper, and to come up with some early thoughts on what they’re saying.
Are you reading the article because it was assigned by your professor and will be discussed in an upcoming lecture? Are you reading it to write a literature review? Knowing why you’re reading something can help you read more efficiently.
If you’re including it in a literature review and it’s not a seminal work, you might be able to skim over more of it. If it’s assigned reading and you need to be able to discuss it, you may have to read it more carefully. Are you interested in the methods? Maybe you can delve deeper into that section and skim the rest. Finally, if you’re already super familiar with the rest of the literature, you may be able to skim through any ‘related work’ or ‘lit review’ sections of the paper.
You’ll get better at this with practice, but, when I read a paper now, I know which sections I have to read carefully and which ones I don’t. This goes along with the tip above—figure out which sections are most important for your chosen purpose.
Now, when you’re skimming these other sections, you should still be reading them and trying to understand them rather than skipping over them entirely. The more you read, the easier this will become, which brings me to my next tip.
The more academic articles you read, the easier it becomes to read them efficiently. I can now read hundreds of papers in a week and generally remember the main points of them. In contrast, during my undergrad and master’s degrees even reading a couple of articles in a day felt like a lot. You don’t have to only read academic articles, though—reading in other mediums will also help with reading speed and comprehension.
Taking notes while you read really slows down the process. If I do anything while I read, I will highlight and then take notes from the highlighted bits afterwards. Generally, though, I just write down the main argument, the method, general results, and, at most, 1-2 other things that were interesting in the article.
This is something I picked up when I did my master’s degree at Oxford. Basically, for exams in Oxford, you have to write a fully referenced essay on a topic from memory. So, I got REALLY good at learning the key points of a paper and being able to connect it with the author who wrote it and the date.
Do you agree with the points the authors are making? Do you have any questions or criticisms? Actively thinking critically as you read about the material will help you retain it better.
I know it’s tempting to basically transcribe an entire article in your notes as it can feel like every single detail is important. The more you read though, the more you’ll learn to pick up on the most important points in a piece. As a general rule of thumb, focus on the main argument in the paper and what they actually did to reach that conclusion. Don’t worry too much about the rest (unless you need to for some specific purpose).
Do you find it easier to read on paper or on a computer? Do you need complete silence to read or does background noise help you focus? Work WITH what works for you and set yourself up for success.
Side note: if you prefer complete silence like I do, I HIGHLY recommend getting a pair of noise cancelling headphones.
Everyone reads at different speeds. I tend to naturally read fast, but know plenty of people who are slower readers and still do very well in their studies. Particularly if you’re reading in a second (or third!) language, it may take you a lot longer to read things than your peers.
The bottom line is—don’t stress yourself out too much about reading super efficiently from the very beginning. It takes YEARS of practice to be able to read academic articles super quickly and effectively. Be patient with yourself and celebrate your wins along the way!
Do you have any tips on how to read journal articles effectively? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
Want more university tips? Check out these articles.