Sarah's Reading and Study Strategies

Read with your brain – not just your eyes – they are just the means!

Read a book like a jigsaw:

In the analogy, you would look at the picture on the box lid so you would get the ‘big picture' of that puzzle. Then you would look for the corner pieces and the straight edges and then fill in the middle.  Read a book like this as outlined below.

The 80/20 technique:

You can gain 80% of the meaning from a book or article by reading 20% of it and it will give you an in-depth overview of that material. It is better to go through a book, article or lecture slides 3-4x more quickly than 1x slowly

  • Preview – get the ‘big picture’, like the jigsaw box lid - flick through the book, article, lecture slides, just getting the boundaries of the information.
  • Then read the introduction and go straight to the conclusion or summary.
  • Then look at diagrams, graphs, contents, chapter headings, and index - highlight in one color all the sub-headings and chapter headings (even if they are separated out and in bold, it helps to break up the text) and read them aloud – this is like putting the corner pieces of your jigsaw in place.
  • Then highlight the first sentence of every paragraph in another colour which should tell you the topic/subject of that paragraph (don’t read any more than that for now) and read them aloud – the straight edges of your jigsaw.
  • Then look for more detail where/if/when you need it – filling in the jigsaw!

So you have gone through that book/article/lectures slides 4 times and you have not read any of it in detail yet but your brain has a very good idea of what the content is about and how it is laid out and where you need to focus your reading – and it will be easier to pick out the core messages.

5-minute Mind Map jotter:

Spend five minutes before reading jotting down everything you know about the subject before starting reading. This establishes your mind set which makes tasks easier and new knowledge hooks onto old knowledge much more easily than simply launching in and reading new material.

Set Goals:

Why am I reading this? What do I want to get out of this? As with a journey you would set a destination and use a route map, do the same when reading a book or article. This also helps to establish the right mind-set.

Key Words and Key Themes:

Think about keywords and key themes, it gets the brain in the right mental place too but like the jigsaw, the brain will start to look to infill the gaps when you use this with the 80/20 technique.

Read Actively:

Write notes in the margins or a notebook - either summaries or spin off thoughts that could be used in an essay later.  Even if you don’t look at the notes again the kinaesthetic action between your hand and your brain helps you to remember the information.

Chunk your time:

  • Set a time period before commencing any study for instance 2 to 3 hours and decide how much you would like to cover in this time period. This gives the brain an overview of the overall study period and research suggests that the human brain has a very strong tendency to complete things when it knows the boundaries.
  • Set a timer for a period of say 30 to 40 minutes. Even if you are in the middle of a sentence when the timer goes off stop and take a break. Write a couple of words about each paragraph you have read. Set a timer for your break of 5 to 10 minutes and go and do something different. 
  • When you return to your study read over your quick notes and then look over briefly what you have just studied, this helps to embed the memory and reinforces what you have just read. Have a look over what you are about to study very quickly and then start next study period of 30 to 40 minutes setting a timer.
  • Have another 5 to 10 minute break and when you come back skim over the last two study sessions that you have completed. Carry on in this way for the overall amount of time that you decided on at the beginning.

Beginnings and Ends:

The beginnings and ends of anything studied tend to be remembered more than information covered in the middle. The above method of studying creates more beginnings and ends and therefore more chances of committing information to memory.

Recall and Concentration:

This way of studying also keeps recall and concentration high. Working for 2 1/2 hours straight means that recall and concentration tend to drop dramatically in a continuous 2-3 hour study period.


The breaks themselves are just as important as the study periods because they give the brain a chance to assimilate the information and to intra-integrate with previous information learned. 

                         Starting Your Essay Workshop - Chunk your time

Review is as important as Preview (or getting the ‘big picture’).

80% of detail is forgotten within 24 hours so you need to review a book, study period, lecture slides, a lecture or tutorial within 24 hours to help to embed the information.  If you can then skim or look over it quickly for 10 minutes the next day, 5 minutes on day 7 and 2 to 4 minutes on day 30. You will have kept that information fresh in your mind and will not have a huge mountain of revision ahead of you when you come to revise for exams. Review is an excellent return on investment. 5 minutes can potentially save you hours of time when it comes to the exams.

Review Slide

You could try - Dual Reading:

Alternate between 2 chapters/books/articles. Read a paragraph, have a break then flip to the next text or read between an overview – say internet information and a more in-depth text. This helps to associate information with what you already know and helps set the text in context and can keep concentration high.

Tips to reinforce the memory of what you have read:

Condense down your notes to identify key words and core themes which will be useful for revision.

Being able to hear a lecture or read a book and then summarise it in your own words as succinctly as possible is a key skill to learn at university and very helpful for life.

To help you find key words and core themes imagine you have to explain your work to a relative or friend in the most logical and understandable way you can. This technique focuses the mind and concentrates the information.

Useful Apps:  Pomodoro Technique, Focus, Flora – basically timers and Forest – an app for helping with time management and avoiding distractions.