Beginning with the end in mind
Being a purposeful reader and note-taker
Most of us have been reading for so long (for many of us since the age of five or younger) that we take for granted what a remarkable process it is. Also, because reading tends to be an automatic process that we do without thinking, we may not be aware of what our reading habits are, or how we might go about improving them. If we wish to change our habits, a good place to start is to consider the process of reading itself.
According to Tony Buzan, developer of the mind map approach to note-taking, reading involves at least seven steps (Buzan, 2010). It is a multi-level process. As you read this book, light is reflecting off the page and entering your eyes. The light is focused onto the retina, the layer at the back of each eye, where it triggers sensory cells to generate nerve impulses. These travel through the optic nerve to visual-processing parts of the brain, which link, in turn, to language-interpreting regions and areas where higher-level thinking processes occur. It is a surprisingly complex process, with many parts of the brain involved (Smith, 2004). This is perhaps not surprising when you consider the numerous effects that reading has, whether it is words evoking mental pictures, sounds, tastes, smells and powerful feelings, or sentences and paragraphs triggering deep thought.
From a practical point of view, considering reading in relation to writing (and learning more generally), it is convenient to consider the reading process as adapted from Buzan’s (2010) sevenstage model:
1Assimilating some part of what is on the page. This is the physical process of light transfer from page to eye, and then message transfer through the optic nerve to the brain. This takes just a few
hundredths of a second.
2Recognising letters and words. This too takes place quickly. Providing you are well versed in the appropriate written language, in less than a second you can recognise that you are seeing letters and words. This is the case, whether the words are written horizontally or vertically, or are printed or in longhand (providing the writer’s handwriting is legible!).
3Intra-integrating (inner-integrating) what you are reading. This means comprehending what you are reading within its context. This applies to words in a sentence (such as this one), and their context within this paragraph, this section, this chapter, and in the wider context of this book. Similar sentences to these could be projected on a slide, or depicted on a poster, or posted on a webpage. Compared with this book, they are different contexts and the meanings of such words and sentences might be interpreted slightly differently as a result.
4Extra-integrating (outer-integrating) involves relating what you are reading to your previous knowledge and understanding. It entails making connections and employs processes that might be described as analysing, critiquing, reviewing and selecting. This is ’thinking’, and happens both within our awareness (consciously) and outside it (subconsciously or unconsciously).
5Retaining (storing) the information in some form of longer-term memory in our brain. Retaining information can be helped by rereading the material, annotating it, taking notes or mentally rehearsing aspects of what you have read.
6Recalling what you have retained. Retaining (storing) information is of little use unless you can recall it when you need it. Reviewing your notes or your annotations (marking up) of a text can help your recall.
7Communicating what you have read and understood in some form: in speech, in writing, as visual art, as music, or whatever.
If reading is seen this way, as a complex, seven-stage process, it becomes clear that to be an effective academic reader, it helps to read ’with the end in mind’. In other words, just before you start reading something for study purposes, to ask yourself ’What am I seeking to gain from reading this?’ A more powerful question to ask is ’What will I be able to do as a result of reading this, that I couldn’t do before?’ Asking such questions transforms the reading process, making it more purposeful. It turns you into a hunter of information rather than a passive sponge seeking to soak up information.
’OK’, you might say, ’but how do I know what I expect to gain from reading something if I haven’t read it yet?’ This is a good question. And that is where scanning and skimming come in.