Do You Really Know How to (Critically) Read?

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Crack open your books, you will actually do the reading assignment tonight. For any major, learning to read critically feels like one of the hardest skills to master. Some have tried, many have failed. Considering your tactics haven’t worked at this point, might as well try out what the experts at Boston College Communication Department suggest.

The Don’ts

DON’T listen to music.

When we do read most of us want background music, a little jam session that makes reading go by faster. But could music hurt us in the long run? “Read in silence. It is the largest myth in all of college that you can study to music. You definitely cannot read critically to music,” said Vincent Rocchio, adjunct faculty at Boston College. So get to a quiet space where you can study, unplug your headphones and silently read. Sounds like a scene from a movie, doesn’t it?

DON’T ask yourself the wrong questions.

Have you ever sat in an Interpersonal Communication exam and you just cannot remember that one concept? You know you went over it repeatedly during your study session the night before but now your mind comes up blank. What do you do? How do you find the right question to ask yourself to begin to think critically? “Know what questions will help you answer questions, and which ones will not,” said Rocchio. “In Communications, especially media studies and theory courses, it is far better to ask yourself the following questions: ‘What is the theory this question is asking me to work with?’, ‘What is the specific communications situation this theory is being applied to?’, ‘What results do I see when I apply this theory’ rather than when I just look casually at the communication situation.”

DON’T check over your answers immediately.

I constantly go over and over my answers on a test, trying to fix each word and sentence to add in as many key words or concepts as possible. So even if I don’t give the exact answer, I can “amaze” the professor with my memorizing capabilities. This rarely works, though. “First, answer questions out of order, not one right after the other. Read all the questions first, quickly. Then go back and start answering the questions you have the highest level of confidence in. Answer and move on. Then, when you finish answering questions, go back and check your answers. Never check an answer after you wrote it. The odds are very low that you will make a good correction,” said Rocchio.

DON’T read articles once over.

Some people don’t think you can save time by reading your articles for class twice over, but Rocchio begs to differ. “First, read through the article lightly, but attentively. Your only goal here is get through it. Never mind understanding everything, every point, and every supporting argument. Just get through it. After reading for the first time, walk away. Do something else. Then you read for argument. Pay attention to what the main argument is, what are the supporting arguments, what are the key concepts, how are they defined and how are they characterized. Reading critically with the two-step reading method gives you those skills,” said Rocchio.

DON’T let passivity get to you.

On that note, don’t let the words just wash over you. Actually comprehend them and critically think about ways to apply concepts you learn in each course. “Passive reading and passive listening (where you just let the words wash over you) tend to result a lack of retention and understanding. The students that excel spend their time actually breaking down the concepts that they have learned or read about and then spend time outside of class considering these things actively and directly,” said Assistant Professor Celeste Wells.

The Dos

DO learn to read…critically.

We all know how to read, but not everyone knows how to read critically and with purpose. We’ve all experienced walking to class and suddenly remembering a critical reading assignment due next class. You grab your textbook and crack it open, skimming for the highlighted words and underlined concepts, attempting to prepare yourself for class in the five minutes it takes to walk from the dining hall. Turns out, that won’t cut it. “The most basic study skill that most students will fail to learn is critical reading.  The reason is simple: students already know how to read, so they think they do not have to go any further with the skill.  They could not be more wrong,” said Rocchio.

DO start at your library.

People either never enter the library in their four years of college or it becomes their go-to place to study on campus, no room in between. In a crunch, you don’t need to go to the library to benefit from their resources, as plenty of their databases exist online. “Most university and college libraries have research guides on their library web sites in [different] subject areas. Typically you can find guides created for a specific course or a particular subject area within a discipline. Explore which databases your library subscribes to and delve into these resources. You’ll be amazed at what you can find,” said BC Communication Librarian Leslie Homzie. “And remember to meet with a librarian, too, who can point out additional gems that you may not have come across.”

DO ask for help.

Contrary to popular belief, your professors want to watch you succeed. Go to them. Ask them for advice on studying for a particular test or picking a topic for your next paper. “If you struggle on exams it may not necessarily be the content of the exam that you are struggling with as much as way you process that content,” said Wells. So go ahead, walk in to the intimidating yet helpful world of office hours.

DO avoid procrastination.

College students both love and hate procrastination. It feels good to push things to the side at first, but the stress can overwhelm you if you let that deadline catch up to you. We all know this, yet we do it anyway. So let’s make a pact to start writing papers in advance. “Anyone who pulls an ‘all-nighter’ to write a paper gets the grade they deserve: a bad one. The key step in writing [your papers] twice is that after you finish it the first time, you need a bare bones minimum of 24 hours on the shelf before you attempt to edit and revise,” said Rocchio. “Get a lot of distance from it and then look at it again and you’ll find your attitude has changed…[Every] good writer practices shelf time, and every unorganized student does not, and gets lower grades for it.”

DO throw away your highlighter.

“First things first: Throw away your highlighter. It is your enemy,” said Rocchio. Students think they retain more information by highlighting certain words or phrases, but actually, you only passively receive the information this way. Reading your articles twice and doing so critically gives you the best results and prepares you for class the next day. Like clockwork, most of us grab for our highlighters when we read through our reading for the week. We open the highlighter, promising to only mark what we evaluate as truly important, but once we get to the last page of the article, it seems like a 5-year-old just went through and colored all of your reading.

DO grow your curiosity.

So this all may seem a bit overwhelming. Through this, remember to stay curious and to ask questions. “Above all, a curiosity to know more—there’s a saying that I love which is that great teaching should leave the mind like an open window rather than a stained glass. If folks walk out of my class at the end of the semester, both more skeptical and more open-minded about the world, that’s success. More specifically, though, I’d love to have my students be critical thinkers, effective communicators, informed citizens, and empathetic souls,” said BC Assistant Professor Michael Serazio. Take a deep breath. With these new tools in your back pocket, you’re set to start the new year on the right foot.

Celina is a junior at Boston College, studying Communication and American Studies with a concentration in Journalism. She is known for tripping on the flattest of surfaces while maintaining an aura of grace.

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