Part 5 Critical Reading

21 Reading in College

College-level reading is different from the kind of reading done in high school. The types of texts and assignments differ, but also the expectations for critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis of ideas. The more you are able to read effectively at the college level, the greater your chances of having success in college, economic advancement, and a more fulfilling life.

Active vs. Passive Reading

Have you ever read a page from a textbook and at the end of the page realized you have no idea what you just read?

Successful readers develop active reading habits that improve their reading comprehension, speed, and enjoyment. Active reading involves deeper engagement with the text before, during, and after reading. The Reading Lab promotes active reading by modeling strategies and techniques to support it.

A good way to understand active reading is by comparing it to what it is not, what’s sometimes called passive reading.



Common Reading Systems

You probably have a process or system for many common things you do—like getting ready in the morning, going to work or school, or doing chores. Do you have a process for reading?

There are several reading systems used by college and high school students to improve their reading comprehension. The most common ones are SQ3R, KWL, and Cornell Notes.

Reading Scholarly Articles

Reading and understanding scholarly articles can be challenging. There are many different types of articles that may be found in scholarly journals and other academic publications.

While You Read

Reading a scholarly article isn’t like reading a novel, website, or newspaper article. Likely, you won’t read and absorb it from beginning to end, all at once. Instead, think of scholarly reading as inquiry, i.e., asking a series of questions as you do your research or read for class. Your reading should be guided by your class topic or your own research question or research.

For example, as you read, you might ask yourself:

  • Is the article relevant to a class theme or to my own work?
    • What questions does it help to answer, or what topics does it address?
  • Does the article offer any unique perspectives or new information?
    • Are these relevant or useful to me?
  • Can I use the contents of the article in any other ways?
    • Does the article offer a helpful framework for understanding my topic or question (theoretical framework)?
    • Do the authors use interesting or innovative methods to conduct their research that might be relevant to me?
    • Does the article contain references I might consult for further information?

In Practice

Scanning and skimming are essential when reading scholarly articles, especially at the beginning stages of your research or when you have a lot of material in front of you.

Many scholarly articles are organized to help you scan and skim efficiently. The next time you need to read an article, practice scanning the following sections (where available) and skim their contents:

  • The abstract: This summary provides a birds’ eye view of the article contents.
  • The introduction: What is the topic(s) of the research article? What is its main idea or question?
  • The list of keywords or descriptors
  • Methods: How did the author(s) go about answering their question/collecting their data?
  • Section headings: Stop and skim those sections you may find relevant.
  • Figures: Offer lots of information in quick visual format.
  • The conclusion: What are the findings and/or conclusions of this article?

Reading Strategies

Mark Up Your Text

Read with purpose.

  • Scanning and skimming with a pen in hand can help to focus your reading.
  • Use color for quick reference. Try highlighters or some sticky notes. Use different colors to represent different topics.
  • Write in the margins, putting down thoughts and questions about the content as you read.
  • Use digital markup features available in eBook platforms or third-party solutions, like Adobe Reader or

Categorize Information

Create your own informal system of organization. It doesn’t have to be complicated — start basic, and be sure it works for you.


  • Jot down a few of your own keywords for each article. These keywords may correspond with important topics being addressed in class or in your research paper.
  • Write keywords on print copies or use the built-in note-taking features in reference management tools like Noodletools and EndNote.
  • Your keywords and system of organization may grow more complex the deeper you get into your reading.

New Words

Highlight words, terms, phrases, acronyms, etc. that are unfamiliar to you. You can highlight on the text or make a list in a notetaking program.

  • Decide if the term is essential to your understanding of the article or if you can look it up later and keep scanning.

Reading for Citations

You may scan an article and discover that it isn’t what you thought it was about. Before you close the tab or delete that PDF, consider scanning the article one more time, specifically to look for citations that might be more on-target for your topic.

You don’t need to look at every citation in the bibliography — you can look to the literature review to identify the core references that relate to your topic. Literature reviews are typically organized by subtopics within a research question or thesis. Find the paragraph or two that are closely aligned with your topic, make note of the author names, and then locate those citations in the bibliography or footnote.


Common Components of Original Research Articles

Note: Not all articles contain all components.
Title Offers clues to article’s main topic.
Author(s) Describes who is responsible for this work. May be one person, a group, or an institution. Make note of authors and institutions you see repeatedly during your search process.
Abstract Summarizes article contents and findings; may include methodology.
Keywords Describe the content in quick words or phrases. Help you place the work in context with other literature. Good for quick reference!
Introduction Summarizes the article’s main idea, thesis, or research question. Should answer the question, “Why this?” Includes background knowledge on the topic and provides information about research motivations, impact, or purpose.
Literature Review Places the research in context with prior work. Analyzes important contributions that the author(s) believe are relevant and that the article builds upon to create new knowledge. Sometimes includes a theoretical framework. A good place to look to find additional sources for your research!
Methods (or Methodology) An explanation of how and why the authors approached the examination of their question and the collection of data. May include information about the limitations of their chosen methodology.
Discussion An examination of meaning and implications of the research for existing and future exploration.
Figures Graphical representation of findings and other relevant information. Includes charts, graphs, maps, images, tables, etc. Look at figures during your initial scan to determine relevancy and quality.
Conclusion A synthesis of the findings and importance of the research.







  • Content Adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (OWL). (2020).  Excelsior College. Retrieved from licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-4.0 International License.
  • Content adopted from Brown University Library (2023).  Brown University. Retrieved from  licensed by Nikolay Necheuhin licensed under CC BY 3.0.


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English 102: Journey Into Open Copyright © 2021 by Christine Jones is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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