Reading With Purpose

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Overview

Reading purpose—or your reason for reading and the things you do to carry it out—is something you may not have given great thought. Perhaps you didn’t like reading, felt bored by the material, or found written text difficult to understand. In primary and secondary school, you may have mechanically noted the assignment, opened the book to the first page, and closed it when you finished reading the last page. This gave you some understanding of a topic, the ability to participate in class, and the capacity to pass formal assessments (e.g., quizzes and tests). If this approach worked in the past, why wouldn’t it work in the future?

In practical terms, passing classes and completing a university degree are unlikely if you maintain this way of reading. The content of texts is more complex, and their structures don’t account for your reading level. Highly structured reading guides provided by secondary teachers are less frequently available in university courses. Instructors generally require a greater depth of understanding and assign many more pages in a typical week or unit. All of this necessitates a more purposeful and independent engagement with course materials.

A picture shows a brown dog wearing glasses with its head lying on an open picture book.

Source: Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll gain no guidance when deciding why and how to read. Several external elements (e.g., the syllabus, in-class instructions) will help you effectively approach assigned readings. However, internal elements should also aid you in formulating a purpose for reading. Presumably, you have intellectual and professional reasons for taking specific courses and for seeking a university education. Considering them when crafting reading purpose will not only motivate you to enthusiastically pay close attention to texts and complete them, but are also likely to result in greater comprehension than if they are absent.

But don’t think this can all happen with just one reading of the text. Fulfilling your reading purpose occurs in stages, which often consist of several smaller goals. The nature of the latter depends on the structure and content of the text and your background knowledge. These factors make impossible one-size-fits-all prescriptions about the number of times you should read an assignment and what your goals should be for each of these.

Likewise, the strategies you can use to reach these goals don’t exist as simple formulae. For one reading of a singular text, you may use a certain set of strategies. For another reading of the same text, you could utilize different strategies. Strategies which worked for one purpose on one text may not work on a different text, even if your reading purpose is similar. Just as you should maintain flexibility with respect to reading purpose, you should also do the same with strategies. At times, the inability to reach your goals may have to do with your strategy selection; at others, the goals themselves may be too difficult or give you few insights into the text.

The only way to know if you’re on the right track is to assess yourself while you read, after you read, and after you finish a course. Don’t hesitate to make changes and use this insight when completing future readings. All readers who achieve their personal and professiona

l goals do this—and you can, too!

Suggested Readings
Adler, M., & Van Doren, C. (2014). How to read a book: The classic guide to intelligent reading. Simon and Schuster. (Original work published 1940).
Foster, T. (2020). How to read nonfiction like a professor: A smart, irreverent guide to biography, history, journalism, blogs, and everything in between. Harper Perennial.
Park University. (2021, April 29). Quick tip Tuesday #22 - The Feynman Technique [Video]. YouTube.
Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 11591168.
Southwestern Michigan College. (2016, August 17). Learn to Annotate at Our Community College in Michigan [Video]. YouTube.