3.2 Success Before Class: Pre-reading

Leslie Jennings, RN

Learning Objectives

At the end of this section, the learner will:

  • Explain the importance of pre-reading as a strategy for successful learning.
  • Recognize reading principles that enhance the learning process.
  • Practice taking notes from assigned readings.

Success before Class

Most students entering college have not yet dealt with the level of difficulty involved in reading and comprehending scholarly textbooks and articles. The challenge may even surprise some who have had adequate comprehension skills so far. Other students for whom reading has mostly consisted of social media, texts, forum chat rooms, and emails, find they are intimidated by the sheer amount of reading there is in college classes.

Reading and learning are processes that work together. As with learning from lectures and discussions, the learning of information and skills presented in readings, textbooks, and written text from a website should be viewed as a process: preparation to take in the new information, the act of taking in the new information, and then reviewing the information so that it is later accessible (recalled from memory) to use for a project, paper, or test..

Preparing for class by reading assigned texts related to the lecture material is extremely important to optimize the lecture experience. If you have a professor who tends to lecture at a fast pace, you have the foundational information and only need to focus on writing down unfamiliar information. If you are taking an online class with recorded lectures, this approach can apply too. If your professor expects class participation in discussions or utilizes active classroom techniques, such as case studies, small group activities and discussions, simulations, or demonstrations, you will understand what is happening and be able to contribute to the learning experience.

It’s Not All Equal

NOTES FOR NURSING Reading a nursing textbook is going to be different than reading a mathematics textbook or a psychology textbook. Further, nursing students may be assigned to read scientific journals or academic articles often housed in college libraries’ online databases. Scholarly articles require a different kind of reading and librarians are a resource for how to find and read this kind of information.

Keep in mind that the best students develop reading skills that are different for different subjects. The main question you want to ask yourself is: Who are you reading for? And what are the questions that drive the discipline? We read different materials for different purposes. Reading texts, blogs, leisure books and textbooks are all different experiences, and we read them with different mindsets and different strategies. The same is true for textbooks in different areas. Applying the principles in this chapter will help with your reading comprehension, but it’s important to remember that you will need to develop specific reading skills most helpful to the particular subject you are studying.


The Seven Reading Principles

1) Read the assigned material. You might be surprised to learn how many students don’t read the assigned material. Often, it takes longer to read the material than had been anticipated. Sometimes it is not interesting material to us and we procrastinate reading it. Sometimes we’re busy and it is just not a priority. It makes it difficult to learn the information your instructor wants you to learn if you do not read about it before coming to class.

2) Read it when assigned. This is almost as big of a problem for students as the first principle. You will benefit exponentially from reading assignments when they are assigned (which usually means reading them before the instructor lectures on them). If there is a date for a reading on your syllabus, finish reading it before that date. The background knowledge you will attain from reading the information will help you learn and connect information when your instructor lectures on it, and it will leave you better prepared for class discussions. Further, if your instructor assigns you 70 pages to read by next week, don’t wait until the night before to read it all. Break it down into chunks. Try scheduling time each day to read 10 or so pages. It takes discipline and self-control but doing it this way will make understanding and remembering what you read much easier.

3) Take notes when you read. A significant amount of the information we take in is lost after only 20 minutes without review. For the same reasons that it’s important to take notes during lectures, it’s important to take notes when you are reading. Your notes will help you concentrate, remember and review. Refer to Chapter 3.3 for Effective Note Taking Strategies and see the table below for help in finding the main ideas.

4) Relate the information to you. We remember information that we deem is important. The strategy then is to make what you are studying important to you. Find a way to directly relate what you are studying to something in your life. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is not. But if your attitude is “I will never use this information” and “it’s not important,” chances are good that you will not remember it.

5) Read with a dictionary or use an online dictionary.  We may not always recognize all the words in a textbook or their meanings, especially when concepts are new to us. If you read without a dictionary and you don’t know what a word means, you probably still won’t know what it means when you finish reading. Students who read with a dictionary (or who look the word up online) expand their vocabulary and have a better understanding of the text. Take the time to look up words you do not know. Another strategy is to try to determine definitions of unknown words by context, thus eliminating the interruption to look up words.

6) Use your resources when you have questions or if there are concepts you do not understand. Visiting an instructor’s office hours or emailing a professor are some of the most underutilized college resources. If you do, you will get answers to your questions; at the same time, you’ll demonstrate to your instructor that their course is important to you. Find out when your professor’s office hours are (they are often listed in the syllabus), ask before or after class or e-mail your professor to find out. Be polite and respectful.

7) Read it again. Some students will benefit from reading the material a second or third time as it allows them to better understand the material. The students who understand the material the best usually score the highest on exams. It may be especially helpful to reread the chapter just after the instructor has lectured on it.

Taking Reading notes: in Search of Main Ideas

Some students do not actively take notes or mark their readings and texts because they determine it is a lot of extra work to write down so much information. However, the problem is that students are usually writing down too much information and not really cluing in to the main ideas. Here are some tips for identifying the main ideas when reading. The Table of Contents and chapter outlines provide a broad view of the main points that will be covered in a reading. Flesh out the outlines that are already provided for you.

    • Often in a textbook, the main idea is the first or last sentence of a paragraph. If it is not the first or the last sentence, then look back at the entire paragraph to see what the overall issue seems to be. Look for the overall patterns of your textbooks.
    • Titles, headings, and subheadings announce the major subject. Make these headings into questions, and the answers to the questions will likely be the main ideas.
    • Bold and italic words point to a main idea or key concept that you need to understand.
    • Repetition of key words or phrases throughout the text point to a main idea.
    • Questions at the end of the chapter are about the main ideas of the text. Answer those questions and you will identify your main ideas.
    • Summaries presented at the end of the chapter also tend to restate the main ideas briefly. Flesh these ideas out with some supporting ideas, and you would have a good view of the entire chapter.
    • Stop and look at the visuals—pictures, diagrams, tables, etc. Often, the message depicted in the graph or picture is a main idea.
    • Detailed statistics, several examples in a row, and other details often signal that a main idea is being clarified, proven, supported, etc. Track back or ahead to find the main idea they are trying to illustrate.
    • Text that includes bullet points, numbering, or sequences is often a main idea.
    • Look for organizational patterns in the reading that might highlight the main ideas. For instance, are two issues being compared or contrasted? What was the effect of a certain event? Are problems and various solutions being presented? Is there a timeline of events that is important?
    • Be intentional about searching for the main ideas. Ask yourself at the end of each section or paragraph, “What is the point?” or “What is it that the author wants me to know?”

Activity 3.2 – Pre-Reading Practice

Pre-Reading Practice

Utilizing what you have learned from the previous section called, “In Search of Main Ideas”, select a text chapter to read. When you are finished, close the book and write down as many of the main ideas of this chapter as you can remember by skim reading it. Try not to look back. When finished, check your work to make sure you have transcribed the information correctly.



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