7 Active Reading Strategies for Students

Woman actively reading
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Active reading techniques can help you stay focused retain more information, but it's a skill that takes work to develop. Here are some strategies to help you get started right away.

1. Identify new words.

Most of us develop a bad habit of glossing over words that are vaguely familiar to us, often not even realizing we are doing so. When read a difficult passage or book for an assignment, take a few moments to really observe challenging words.


You will likely find that there are many words that you think you know — but that you can’t really define. Practice by underlining every noun or verb that you cannot replace with a synonym.

Once you have a list of words, write words and definitions in a log book. Revisit this log several times and quiz yourself on the words.

2. Find the main idea or thesis.

As your reading level increases, the complexity of your material will likely increase as well. The thesis or main idea may no longer be provided in the first sentence; it may instead be hidden on the second paragraph or even the second page! 

You’ll need to practice finding the thesis of the text or article you’re reading. This is absolutely critical to comprehension.

3. Create a preliminary outline.

Before you dive into reading the text of a difficult book or chapter, you should take some time to scan the pages for subtitles and other indications of the structure.

If you don’t see subtitles or chapters, look for transition words between paragraphs.

Using this information, you can craft a preliminary outline of the text. Think of this the reverse of creating an outline for your essays and research papers. Going backward in this way helps you absorb the information you are reading.

Your mind will, therefore, be better able to “plug” the information into the mental framework.

4. Read with a pencil.

Highlighters can be overrated. Some students commit highlighter overkill, and end up with a sloppy multi-colored mess.

Sometimes it’s more effective to use a pencil and sticky notes when you write. Use the pencil to underline, circle, and define words in the margins, or (if you’re using a library book) use sticky notes to mark a page and a pencil to write specific notes to yourself.

5. Draw and sketch.

No matter what type of information you’re reading, visual learners can always create a mind map, a Venn diagram, a sketch, or a timeline to represent the information.

Start by taking a clean sheet of paper and creating a visual representation of the book or chapter you’re covering. You'll be amazed by the difference this will make for retaining and remembering details.

6. Make a shrinking outline.

A shrinking outline is another useful tool for reinforcing information that you read in a text or in your class notes. To make a shrinking outline, you need to re-write material you see in your text (or in your notes).

While it is a time-consuming exercise to write out your notes, it is a very effective one.

Writing is a necessary part of active reading!

Once you have written out a few paragraphs of material, read it over and think of one keyword that represents an entire paragraph’s message. Write that keyword in the margin.

Once you have written several keywords for a long text, go down the line of keywords and see if the one word will prompt you to remember the full concept of the paragraph it represents. If not, you just need to re-read the paragraph a time or two.

Once every paragraph can be recalled by a keyword, you can begin to create clumps of keywords. If necessary (if you have a lot of material to memorize) you can reduce the material again so that one word or acronym helps you remember the clumps of keywords.

7. Read again and again. ​

Science tells us that we all retain more when we repeat a reading.

It’s good practice to read once for a basic understanding of a material, and read at least one more time to get a more thorough grasp of the material.