If you are looking at your syllabus for the semester and panicking because your professor has assigned you more reading than seems humanly achievable, then you’ve come to the right place. Every once in a while, whether due to a particularly demanding professor or your first entree into graduate school, you run into a reading list that makes you question your professor’s sanity. Unless you can in fact read like Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds or are in possession of Hermione Granger’s time turner, you’re going to need some strategies for tackling this reading load.
Strategy #1: Make Some Friends
One of the easiest ways to deal with huge reading loads is to collaborate with your peers. Split the reading list between a small group of people, assigning a few readings to each person. Each group member is responsible for reading their section in depth and creating detailed, neat, and easy to understand outlines/notes for their assigned section. A day or so before class, exchange the outlines (so everyone has time to read over the notes before class).
Pros of this strategy: It significantly cuts down on the actual reading you’ll do; you end up with a complete set of notes to accompanying your readings for studying
Cons of this strategy: You have to depend on others pulling their weight; you won’t have immediate contact with all of the material and will be depending on the insights gathered by classmates (who might pick up different things than you would have)
Strategy #2: Skim
Most people don’t actually have any real skimming strategies, and think it means reading fast/looking at all the text. WRONG! To successfully skim, you want to read the introduction and conclusion in their entirety. Then, you read the first and last sentence of each paragraph in the body of the text. This will give you a broad understanding of the main ideas within the reading. If your professor has provided discussion questions or reading objectives ahead of time, you can use this to intensify your skimming, focusing more when you hit those sections that your professor has identified.
Pros of this strategy: you will have looked at every text yourself; you will get the main points from the text.
Cons of this strategy: you will probably miss some important details; it will be harder to take good notes
Strategy #3: Read Selectively
This strategy works better if you have been assigned whole books or reports to read. For this strategy, take a look at the “road map” of the work. This can usually be found in the preface/introduction/executive summary. Then, pick out the chapters or sections to focus on, skipping over ones that cover similar points/topics. For example, many social science books are laid out as follows: chapter 1 introduction; chapter 2 theory; chapters 3-7 empirical (evidence) chapters; chapter 8 conclusion. Read the introduction, conclusion and theory chapters, and then pick 1-2 of the empirical chapters to read (If one focuses on statistics, and the others on case studies, read the statistics chapter and one case study).
Pros of this strategy: you both engage with the text deeply and can take good notes of the sections you read; you will get the main points from the text
Cons of this strategy: you might miss an important detail; your notes will be incomplete.
The Bottom Line
Your best bet is to use a combination of these strategies, given the time you have. For example, you may want to form a study group, but also use strategy 2 and 3 to supplement what you get from your study group. If you have no friends in your class (or no one you trust enough with your grade), you might want to use strategy 3, and skim the chapters you don’t read in depth. In the end, you want to pick a strategy that works with your strengths.