How to make reading work for you

three books on table

A review of research literature is a useful thing to do. It helps us understand what the current thinking, developments and practices are with regard to a particular subject area.

The process of creating the review helps us learn about a topic and it also draws out our opinions as we digest and compare the articles that we discover.

As a product in itself, the review assists other to do research as it brings together thinking about a range of articles into one document. If you want to quickly learn about a subject that is new to you, you should look for literature reviews that have already been completed.

It is common for a literature review to identify challenges for the research at the time of writing. These challenges can help you identify where your contribution to knowledge might lie, or at least which areas are worthy of further investigation.

Conducting a review can seem like a monumental task. Reading all of the literature is time consuming, and it is wise not to waste time on irrelevant material.

We can accelerate the process of conducting a review by ensuring that we use specific approaches to reading and comprehending the content of an article, and also being diligent about recording what we do.

Like any research activity, it helps to discuss your ideas and thinking with others; make sure that you talk about your work and your findings to solicit feedback.

SQ3R is an approach to reading that can increase your efficiency when compiling a review.

The original method was proposed by Francis Robinson and can be found here:

Robinson, Francis Pleasant (1978). Effective Study (6th ed.). New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-045521-7.

Alternatively, there are lots of online resources for SQ3R.

There are five steps: survey; question; read; recite and review.

Survey

To start with, resist the temptation to read an article thoroughly, even though it may look interesting. Read the abstract, conclusions and references first. See if there are any interesting conclusions, and if there are, review the rest of the article lightly. Look at headings and sub-headings, figures and tables. This should take no longer than five minutes to complete. You may want to take notes while you do this.

If you realise that the article is out of scope, off-topic, or just does not relate to your intended study, reject it now. Write some notes about why you are rejecting it; they might be useful at some later stage if you discover something else that is relevant.

Question

Using any notes that you might have written from the survey stage, start to pose some questions about the content of the article. You might want more clarity about the particular research method that was used for instance; think about how useful that knowledge might be to your own study. Write these questions down. Again, this should take no longer than a few minutes.

Read

You can now proceed to read the paper in detail. You will find that you already understand the gist of the article, and you are now in a position to digest what has been written and answer your own questions that you posed in the previous stage. You may take longer to complete this activity. In time, you will become quicker.

Retrieve

You shall now attempt to test your comprehension of the article. Without reading the paper, try and answer the questions that you raised, and also try and explain what the paper is about in your own words. Some people prefer to do this out loud, whereas others prefer to write their thoughts down.

You may find that you generate new questions or ideas at this stage. This is good! Write them down and repeat the Read stage to clarify your understanding.

Review

Regularly reviewing what you understand is important for the success of the SQ3R process. When you read a paragraph, a section, or even the entire article, pause and recite the key elements about the article that you understand, together with any thoughts that you have developed as a result of reading the article.

If you have been diligent through this process, you will have recorded both the formal reference (so that you can cite it at a later stage), and also you shall have notes from each of the subsequent steps.

These notes will help you when it comes to compile your review.

SQ3R is a good way of quickly getting to grips with a new subject and it also helps you create a much better quality literature review. You’ll spend less time reading irrelevant material, and more time actually understanding the research that is important.

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