If you're a student, you know the feeling. You're out of time to put off your reading assignment, and you're staring at your textbook. Somehow you have to get the information you need out of those pages and into your brain, and you need to do it fast. Previewing your reading assignment is one of the best ways to finish your assignment efficiently and actually remember the material.
Length and Layout
The first things to look for are the most basic: the length, the title and the layout of the pages. The length of the assignment tells you how much time you should plan to spend reading, as well as how much information you will be processing. The title often provides important clues about the author's topic and approach. The layout of the page tells you how the information is organized and presented and what the author considers most important for you to notice. Are there subheadings, sidebars, footnotes or boxes with extra information, key terms, or questions? If so, glancing at them will give you important clues about the material you'll be reading.
The next step is fast and easy, but it is very important. In this step, skim for the key ideas you will be reading about. It usually works well to simply read the first and last sentences of each paragraph -- if you can, even underlining or highlighting them can be helpful. You may also want to glance at each paragraph to spot the main nouns and verbs, and circle or color-code them if you have time. Once you have done this, you will have a good idea what each paragraph is primarily about.
Structure and Flow
Finally, think for a moment about the structure and flow of what you will be reading. Using the information you've already gathered, guess whether the author is making an argument, setting up a contrast or comparison, stating an idea and providing examples or using some other approach to tie the material together. It's helpful to scan for words that show the relationship of one thing to another. Words such as "but", "however," "nevertheless" and "despite" change the flow of an argument or analysis, much like a minus sign in a math equation. On the other hand, words such as "therefore," "for example" and "additionally" function like plus signs, signaling that the author is building on and further developing an idea.
Pulling It All Together
Before you start your assignment, complete a successful preview by pulling together what you know, making sure your foundation is in place so you can build on it quickly and accurately as you read. See if you can answer the four T's: What type of literature is this, what is the tone of the passage, what is the topic of the passage and what is the author's thesis -- that is, what is he or she is specifically saying about the topic? You can usually make a good guess at the four T's once you have noted the title and layout, scanned for key ideas and noted the structure and flow of the text.
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