Building Your Reading Skills: A Guide for Students

In the transition to university, you need to start making choices about how you read course materials such as textbooks, journal articles, and course notes. Here are some ways to approach course readings more effectively.

Survey, question, read, respond, record, and review

Survey, question, read, respond, record, and review (SQ4R) is a structured reading strategy that involves working independently and interactively with written material. The six-step process is as follows:

  • Survey: First, look at the text's index and table of contents. Before reading each chapter, review the titles, subtitles, charts, figures, and summary at the end. This will help you create a context for the material.
  • Question: Transform the title of each section/subsection into a question before reading. This will focus your attention on the information you should be getting from each section and subsection.
  • Read: Next, you should read the text and try to answer each question. Remember to read with a purpose.
  • Respond: After reading the textbook, close it and try to answer each question in your own words.
  • Record: Record information by highlighting it, underlining it, or taking notes. This will make the information easier to locate later when studying. Be careful to avoid highlighting everything: it isn't all equally important.
  • Review: Establish regular and, if possible, frequent review periods, starting early in the term. The amount of information to review increases every week, but the time needed to cover earlier chapters decreases every week. Therefore, the total weekly time needed for reviewing stays about the same.

Concept cards

Identify key concepts as you read through the text. Print each key concept or term on one side of an index card (usually index cards have a blank side). On the back of the index card (lined), provide the concept's explanation. Math students can create “formula cards.” There are many ways to adapt this strategy to various disciplines. Concept cards are valuable tools that you can keep and update throughout your university career. You may also choose to use your concept cards to study. For example, during a review session, test a partner (flash cards) and discuss the concepts.

Research cards

Similar to concept cards, research cards highlight useful data from research sources. Use an index card for each source. The citation is written at the top of the card, and then a short abstract indicating the source's usefulness to the research project is written below the citation. This strategy will help you become used to proper citation practices. Furthermore, compiling research cards will encourage you to engage in proper research habits. Be aware that these research cards might be useful in subsequent courses.

Reading for the big picture

Quickly read through the chapter, skimming each section. Following this exercise, identify the main ideas that the chapter expresses. With these main ideas in mind, re-read the chapter closely.

Take notes while reading

Simply re-reading textbooks over and over again does not promote deep processing of information. You need to record information in an efficient manner to highlight main ideas or concepts. See the Centre for Teaching Excellence teaching tip on Building Your Note-Taking and Study Skills for some suggestions.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


teaching tips

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