Reading academic literature is a skill that all college and university students must acquire, but as professors, we don’t always think about how that happens.  Equally, making usable notes  is an important routine that all students should develop, as soon as possible, but again, this is rarely taught.

This is ironic, because we expect our students  to read many, many, many things! Having good notes, and learning how to process those readings efficiently, will make a student’s career so much easier and more successful. To this end, and based on my own experiences as a student, I’ve developed a five-step exercise which is intended to help students read, take notes on, remember and qualitatively assess, scholarly literature –especially that based on research.  I’ve used it for several years, with very good feedback. Yesterday I updated my teaching tool. Today I’m posting it here for feedback.

The problem: SteampunkGoggle1

While students will likely have read numerous books, magazines, newspapers, blogs, graphic novels, zines, essays or (at least) twitter feeds by the time they enter university or college, academic reading has different purposes, expectations and responsibilities, It requires a different approach. In addition, being an undergraduate often means having a huge reading load to accomplish in a short period of time. Having so much to read, and so much content to absorb, can be daunting. it can be hard to know what to focus on.  There are two common mistakes. One is to read the book, chapter, or article as if it were a novel, focussing on the plot, ‘characters’ and  ending. This is especially true when reading ethnographies or case studies. Secondly, when trying to take notes, without some framework for filtering and organizing the information they are reading, it is easy for a student to fall into the trap of re-writing (practically) the entire article into their study notes.  That is such a waste of energy and time!

The Solution:

What I’ve found is that if students are taught to standardize how to read and make notes on research literature, in the long run they can  build an annotated, standardized bibliography of everything they have read, and ultimately save time and remember what the literature says.

The steps outlined below are designed to help students standardize their approach to reading scholarly literature, organize their note-taking, and to help them clearly identify the argument that each scholar is presenting. The five steps are intended to help students avoid making the two common errors. I hope they work for your students too!

Reading Critically

The first thing students need to realize about reading academic literature is that the content is authored by a researcher (or team of researchers) who has collected and analysed some sort of data, and is presenting her/his analysis as a contribution to generalized knowledge and/or theory-building. I tell my students over and over: Researchers are making an argument: “I did Y, and I found X, which is important because XYZ“.  Researchers rarely say that something is proven unequivocally. As such, the information in scholarly literature is contingent; contingent on the quality of the data collected, the appropriateness of the methodology, and accuracy of the analysis. It is contingent on the potential for new information or theoretical insights to alter the interpretations.  A student’s  goal as a reader is to assess the quality of that argument, and decide how it fits with other research that they have read. This works better, with an organized, strategic approach to reading and taking notes.

The Exercise

Step One:            Read the article until you get to the point where the author tells you what s/he will be arguing. Sometimes we refer to this as the thesis Statement. Writing styles and conventions vary across disciplines, so this thesis or argument or what the paper (or book or chapter, etc) is about may appear in the first paragraph, or even as far in as the second or third page.  Look for statements like “This paper will argue”, or “I will suggest that” or “this paper reports on a study into…”.  When you get to this point, stop, and write down the thesis statement.

Step Two:           Flip to the end of the paper (chapter, book, etc). Find the concluding statement. This may sometimes be referred to as ‘Results’ or ‘Findings’ (especially in more quantitatively focussed research). It may be a section, or an entire chapter called ‘Conclusion’. Read the conclusion and make notes as to what the author is saying s/he has found.

Step Three:         Go back to the beginning and read lightly, looking for the methodology. How was the data collected? Is this a randomized double-blind trial? Is this based on interviews? Self-reported in a survey? Participant observation?  Document the methodology in your notes.

Step Four:           Now you can read the entire article, chapter, book. As you read, look for data that the that the author(s) present as evidence to justify their conclusion.  Take notes as to this evidence – what is presented that specifically supports the conclusion(s)? If you are reading a long article or book, it will help you to record the specific page numbers for where the evidence is recorded. Be aware that in anthropology, what counts as ‘evidence’ is likely to be anecdotal and or observational – it may be a story or a type of ceremony recorded by the researcher, or statements made to the researcher by interlocutors.

Step Five:            When you are finished Step Four, think about the evidence presented, and the arguments made on the basis of that evidence. Do you agree with the researcher’s interpretation of the data? Would you interpret the material differently, to come to different conclusions? What about the quality of the data / evidence presented? Does it seem reliable? Is it possible that the researcher could have misinterpreted or misrepresented what they’ve used as data? Is there evidence of bias?  As you become more skilled in the literature, you will be able to consider: Has the author accurately applied the evidence to theory, or has the researcher misrepresented or misinterpreted what other theorists have written?  Record your interpretations and opinions, your alternative interpretations and/or reservations about the article. (If you are reading a book, repeat this step for each chapter, and then for the book as a whole).

There are numerous annotated bibliography software options. An Excel spreadsheet can be designed to allow for a searchable database. Endnote is popular, with good reason – it offers features far beyond the annotated bibliography.  But I find that typing into a computer is a distraction when reading a book (even an e-book).  To that end, I developed a template that students can use to structure their notes. The info recorded here can always be added to a digitized database later.

Date & Citation:
Step 1: Thesis Statement:
Step 2: Conclusion:
Step 3: Methodology:
Step 4: Evidence | Data:
Step 5: Assessment | Critique:
(Repeat Step 5 for each chapter of a book)

More Resources:

Mount Mercy University. Reading a Research Article