Coping with Readings at University: The Art of Speed Reading

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When studying at university you will quickly realize how important reading is in an academic environment and even more so if you are studying a subject in the social sciences, business or related topics. In these subjects it is likely that every single one of your lecturers will have prepared a reading list for you with both core and optional readings. Now, as a student you may quickly feel overwhelmed by the sheer endless amount of articles, papers and book chapters that you are expected to read every week and you may wonder how others are managing it all.

Well, the truth is that many don’t read what they are supposed to and hope to survive by sticking to their notes and lecture slides; and others have developed reading strategies that help them cope. In fact, in some situations it is very important or desired to read slowly and focused, for instance when you read for pleasure. But in other situations you need to absorb a lot of text in a very short amount of time and alternative reading strategies should be utilized. Speed reading is one core strategy that can be used in times when you have to read a lot of content but have little time at your disposal.

Not everybody is a passionate reader and has developed the so called “flow” that allows experienced readers to read up to 250 words per minute when reading at a normal pace, as opposed to around 70 words of untrained readers (Spiegel, 2014). But the good news is, it is possible to develop your reading skills through practice both for normal and speedy reading.

Well trained speed readers can then double or even triple their speed when reading, absorbing between 400 and 800 words per minute or even more. For students who have to read hundreds of pages per week, this can be a real relief.

Core principles of speed reading:

  1. Skimming: Before you decide whether you want to spend a lot of time reading a text, speed readers advice to skim it first. This technique will help you decide whether you should bother reading the text at all. Skimming can entail looking at the abstract, quickly reading through headings and highlighted words etc. all in the search for information about the quality and key message of the content. While this is not advisable for readings you have been assigned by your lecturers, it is a good method to use when researching for an essay.
  2. Use a pointer (your finger or a pen): Start out guiding your eye by utilizing your finger to point at the line you are in. A key reason slowing down the reading process is the problem of wandering off with your eyes and then needing time to find the line again where you left off. Your finger can help you stay focused. As you get used to using your finger, you can then start to move to every second line instead of every line and then even every third or fourth. If you read from a screen, use your mouse instead of your finger.
  3. Read in chunks: You need to start reading in chunks of words instead of reading every single word. Try this by reading parts of two words at once, then three then four and then at one point you will be able to read whole sentences by glancing at them. This needs practice though, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see immediate improvement.
  4. Jump with your pointer: As you get more practice in, use your pointer not for the whole line but only move it to certain words that jump at you; they are your eyes’ fixation points. This means that instead of reading from left to right at one point you will have developed your own reading pattern. Once your eye is fixated on one point (i.e. where your finger is) you will absorb the words around it, if you have trained reading in chunks. As you get more accustomed to speed reading your jumps can get much bigger. And you will absorb more words in less time as your peripheral vision gets trained more and more.
  5. Don’t re-read if you think you have missed some passages because your mind has gone off doing something else. If it is important it will come up again. This is often referred to as regression and can take up to 30% of your reading time!!
  6. Only use your eyes, not your head: Moving your head while reading will slow down your speed so avoid this and you will see immediate improvement.
  7. Don’t move your lips: This will also slow down your reading speed.
  8. Avoid reading filler words: Words that are in there to make the sentence structure grammatically correct such as articles (e.g. the, a) and prepositions (e.g. and, then). These don’t add to the substance of the text.
  9. Practice! Keep the above in mind every time you want to read something quickly or even just for the sake of practicing. This website has some additional exercises that help you improve your speed reading skills (http://fourhourworkweek.com/2009/07/30/speed-reading-and-accelerated-learning/).

With reading becoming ever more important in a digitalized world bombarding us with text through tweets, facebook messages, blogs like this one and others, the importance of reading does not fade but becomes ever more relevant. Yet the methods of reading we have been taught at school are not enough to absorb the amount of content we are expected to absorb in ever less time. For this reason, speed reading can be a really useful skill to have though it should be applied only then when we don’t have to make sure that we understand a text 100%.

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Surviving Group Work: 10 Tips that will help you get through!

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Everyone going through higher education will have to deal with group work at one point. Depending on your course this could happen very often or very rarely. During my time as undergraduate student, I was faced with group work in almost every single module I took and I have experienced and lived all the pleasures and pains that come with it. I have been in self-selected groups and in assigned groups and in both cases I have had really good experiences and absolute nightmares! So I feel for all of you who have to go through similar nightmares. However, I believe that there are a few things you can do to make the best out of a group assignment. The below tips won’t cure all the ills that group work suffers from in general but they can mitigate some of them.

Please note that these tips are mostly suitable for assessed group assignments. If you are not marked on your group work, some of these tips don’t apply and unfortunately all I can say about unassessed group work is hope for the best…and explain to your teacher that unassessed group work is a general group work nightmare times 10…

  1. Meet your team members asap!

After you have been assigned a group task and your group has been formed either by yourself or by your course teacher, you should schedule a first meeting as soon as possible! Get everybody together and get to know those that you don’t know yet. This will get you started early and can solve a lot of issues upfront. And even if you know all your team members already, still get them all together to sort out all the essential things upfront that will shape the success of your group assignment.

  1. Determine expectations

In your first meeting you should openly discuss what each one of you wants from this assignment. Do all of you want to do get an A or do some of you not really care about their mark and just want a pass? If they don’t care they may not say this openly but often you can sense it when talking to them. But I have also experienced people telling me directly that they don’t care and really just want to pass this assignment. It is better to be honest here so that team members know what they can expect from each other and group expectations can be established.

  1. Discuss strengths and weaknesses

This next point is very important. It is crucial that the team understands early who is good at what, so that team roles and tasks can be assigned accordingly. Often this requires quite a bit of personal reflectivity and as you go through your undergraduate education you will get better at this. Of course you need to talk about subject specific strengths e.g. writing skills, math skills etc. But also ask yourself are you somebody who is hands-on and finishes tasks, somebody who drives projects, or would you much rather be assigned a specific task? Do you like to take a lot of responsibility? But can you also trust other people and let them produce their own work without you constantly trying to control everything? Are you a bit lazy and need somebody to push you? All these and similar ones are important questions to ask yourself and your team members and you should try to answer them honestly. This will encourage your team members to do the same.

  1. Determine group roles

Once all of you have put all your cards on the table you can then go on and determine group roles. Who will be responsible for what? Do you want a group leader or do you want to take turns in facilitating your group work and your meetings in particular? In student groups it is often very difficult to determine a group leader as there is no natural hierarchy between students, so it may be useful to leave this question open at the beginning and wait and see whether a natural group leader emerges or you can just say that you will all take turns at leading the group. If you decide the latter make sure that you clarify the rota so that nobody will get upset. You should also decide on somebody who takes minutes and distributes the agenda prior to a meeting.

  1. Determine a procedure for conflict

Though I wish for everybody that there will be no conflict whatsoever in their groups and that it will all work well, quite often this is not so. The problem of free-riding has probably existed ever since humans have started to walk the earth. But there can also be problems between team members, uneven expectations and work ethics, last minute vs. early bird attitudes and all sorts of other things that emerge over the course of a group assignment. For this reason it is really important that you determine a procedure to deal with conflict early on. This could be as simple as making clear that everybody addresses potential problems as soon as possible either directly to the person concerned or to the whole group. But you could also appoint one group mediator who will try to talk to all involved parties should a problem arise. You could also determine a red line after which you will consult your teacher to help solve the issue. Do whatever you think works best for your group but try to address this in the first meeting!

  1. Decide on means of communication

Ask all team members how they can best be reached. Is it email, WhatsApp, facebook, a phone call? Exchange phone numbers, create a facebook group or do whatever you feel you need to do to ensure that all team members will be reached easily.

  1. Schedule a regular time to meet

This may sound unnecessary but from my own experience I know how difficult it can sometimes be to find a time that suits everybody. So, having managed to get together in this first meeting is already a great success. For this reason you should take the opportunity to determine regular meeting slots which everybody should put in their calendar immediately.

  1. Assign tasks

After all the organizational stuff has been done you should get an overview of the tasks that have to be completed in your group project and distribute the work among all team members. Make sure everybody knows what to do and that everybody is happy with their workload.

  1. Take minutes and set agendas!

This is very important. Agendas help you to focus on the relevant tasks in each meeting and to get the things done that need to get done and minutes help to remind everybody of what has been discussed and can also be useful if conflicts arise. Determine who does what and make sure that both agenda and minutes are distributed to all team members in a timely manner. Since taking minutes can be a pain and you may not find a volunteer in your group, it may also be a good idea to take turns.

  1. Reflect on your own behavior!

This is actually very important. Try to see the others’ point of view. Have you done less than what you had agreed to? Are you very pushy and controlling? Try to reflect on your own behavior in this group work and try to change it, should there be a need for it. It is always easy to blame others for failure or conflict. Try to see what role you are playing in such scenarios.

That’s it. That’s all the advice I can give about group assignments and it is by no means exhaustive but try it out! It can at least help mitigate some of the pains that group work often comes with. For those interested, I can also recommend looking at some managerial models of team work such as the Tuckman model of team development and the Belbin Team Role Model.