Oh, the Humanities! Studying Tips for Reading-intensive Courses and Other Miscellaneous Advice

by Angela S.

To help you navigate your college humanities classes and plan your time more efficiently, here is some humble study advice from a third-year college student:

1.) Moderate your highlighting. I’ve read various “How to Study” guides that advise students to skip or cut down on highlighting because it’s ineffective. Often students highlight the information to review later, but they never actually review it, or they end up highlighting too much instead of the most pertinent information. My particular problem with highlighting, however, didn’t fall into either of these categories—I’d highlight only the main ideas, but when I reviewed them I failed to see how each idea was connected. To combat this issue, I developed a system where I highlight the main idea and underline the more important examples or supporting points so that I could understand how the author got from point A to point B. This is how I would highlight this excerpt from a Time article about author Amy Chau’s book describing her stringent parenting methods:

…With a stroke of her razor-sharp pen, Chua has set a whole nation of parents to wondering: Are we the losers she’s talking about?

Americans have ample reason to wonder these days, starting with our distinctly loserish economy. Though experts have declared that the recent recession is now over, economic growth in the third quarter of 2010 was an anemic 2.6%, and many economists say unemployment will continue to hover above 9%. Part of the reason? Jobs outsourced to countries like Brazil, India and China. Our housing values have declined, our retirement and college funds have taken a beating, and we’re too concerned with paying our monthly bills to save much…Meanwhile, in China, the economy is steaming along at more than 10% annual growth, and the country is running a $252.4 billion trade surplus with the U.S…

If our economy suffers by comparison with China’s, so does our system of primary and secondary education…

Notice how I actually have two sentences highlighted at the beginning of this excerpt—the first because it’s a topic sentence, and the second because it’s a subtopic. Also note how the second underlined sentence in the first paragraph further contextualizes the highlighted sentence in the following paragraph.

Doing all this can be very time-consuming, so I’d recommend this method only for texts that you need to know really well, like the sources you’ll use for a paper. For regular reading assignments, I use a derivative of Study Hacks author Cal Newport’s Morse Code Method: with a pen or pencil, draw a vertical line along whatever passage/sentence you find important. It’s quicker, easier, and more efficient than laboriously drawing that highlighter across the page, line-by-line.

2.) Refer to your syllabus for help with reading assignments. This may seem obvious, but I think many students tend to use syllabi only to know when assignments are due and how their grades will be calculated, when they’re also quite useful in helping you know what to look for when completing a reading for class. Professors will often include a general list of questions to help you interact with the reading: what is the author’s main argument? What evidence does he or she use to support that argument? What factors undermine the argument? How does this reading relate to the larger themes covered in the course? If the syllabus doesn’t have such a list, take a look at the course goals and objectives. How does the reading respond to these goals? (The Study Guides and Strategies website also has an excellent list of questions on its how to read an essay page.)

3.) Write down what strikes you about your readings. For a history course I took last semester, part of our participation grade stemmed from writing an informal, one-page response on anything that struck us about the reading: what stuck out to us, what confused us or reminded us of things we’d previously read and why, etc. If you are like me and need time to think about what you want to say before you say it, this exercise can be very helpful because it forces you to actively think about what you’re reading and prepares you for contributing to the conversation ahead of time. You don’t have to make it as long as one page—even a short paragraph would suffice.

4.) For planning purposes, check out the basic details of your assignments. Glance over your homework assignments ahead of time and get a feel for how long it will take you to complete them. With reading assignments, page ranges can be deceiving: an article that’s only eight pages may be full of small text and complex, esoteric ideas, while an essay that’s fifty pages long may have large margins and contain numerous footnotes.
a. Speaking of citations, if you print your readings out, check to see which pages contain only endnotes so that you can save ink and money by printing out only the pages you need.

5.) Use a calendar to keep track of your obligations. Print out a blank calendar and write down each of your assignments and time commitments on they day they’re due. Many students use day planners, but the advantage of a calendar over a planner is that you have a handy overview of all your obligations over the next few weeks instead of just one, so you’re better able to plan your time. Like my line-drawing method for readings, this tip was also derived from Cal Newport’s blog (more on it below).

6.) Browse Study Hacks. Written by a postdoctoral student at MIT, Study Hacks is a blog full of useful advice for getting the most out of your academics in the most time-efficient and stress-free manner possible. It covers various techniques for handling all aspects of academia, from reading assignments to problem sets, and also provides insights on other college issues such as selecting a major and choosing a career.

Angela S. is a junior at Oberlin College.

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