Reading in the Social Sciences

Reading at the university level text takes time, energy, patience, and effective active reading strategies to maximize comprehension and retention. Social sciences texts offer their own unique qualities and challenges. Many of the strategies that work for general texts work for social science texts as well, but this guide focuses on effective strategies specifically for social science texts.

Before Reading

Gather Information

Gathering information about the text, context, and author can help you better understand the text. You’ll want to think about the following:

  • Title: What does the title suggest? Take some time to free write about what you think the article/chapter will be about based on the title.
  • Author: Who is the author? What else have they written? Why did they write this piece?
  • Abstract: If there’s an abstract, what does the abstract suggest the piece will be about? How can it help guide your reading?
  • Year published: How does the piece reflect the beliefs or ideologies of the time of its writing?
  • Historical context: What social, cultural, economic, and political events shaped or influenced the piece?
  • Type of source (e.g., journal, primary source, book)
  • Intended audience (e.g., scholars, students, general public)

Preview the Text

Preview the assigned pages to get an idea of what you’ll be learning. Use this information to set a purpose for reading. Here are some steps to previewing the text:

  • Thumb through the pages and note headings, graphs, images, bold words, subtitles, etc.
  • Read the abstract, introduction, and/or summary.

Make Predictions

Based on this information, predict what the main ideas or concepts of this text are going to be and what will be important to focus on.

Check out the guide on reading comprehension tips for more info on how to preview a text.

During Reading

Understand the Argument

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the reading advance an argument, often referred to as a thesis? Often times words such as “claim,” “argue,” “contend,” “demonstrate,” and “show” indicate an argument is being introduced.
  • If so, what is the author’s thesis or point of view?
  • How does it fit with what other scholars have said about the topic?
  • How does it fit with what you’ve learned about the topic in class?
  • What is the author’s objective?
  • What major points does the author make? (That is, what subtopics or claims does the author make that further develop the thesis?)

Analyze How the Author Expands the Argument

Ask yourself:

  • What kind of evidence supports the thesis?
  • Do you find it convincing? Why or why not?

Learn Vocabulary

Here are some steps to help you learn and remember new words in your reading:

  • As you encounter unknown terms that seem important, write them down and then be sure to find their definitions during reading.
  • Reread the sentence where the word is located to help you remember its meaning. Try using it in an original sentence.
  • Studying online? Try Quizlet or another flash card app to create vocabulary flashcards and space out your practices to make sure you are retaining what you have learned. Check out this video on evidence-based study strategies for more info on distributed practice.

Use Visuals

Here are some tips for using visuals to get the most out of your reading and help you remember what you have read:

  • Pay attention to visuals such as charts, tables, diagrams, illustrations, graphs, time lines, and maps.
  • Determine the main point or purpose of each visual, and how they connect and contribute to the text overall.
  • Create your own visuals. Creating a timeline, concept map, or even an outline of what you read can help you understand and retain the material better.
  • Use a multimedia note taking app like OneNote or Evernote to organize your notes and visuals.

After Reading

Ask Questions

Make note of unclear points to clarify by using other sources, recitation, or office hours.

Solidify Your Learning

Either individually or with a partner, talk through the material. When you get stuck explaining the material, you’ll know that where you’ll need to go back to the text (or to other sources) for clarification.

Consider Drawing a Concept Map or Timeline

List key people or major events. Write a summary of main ideas.

Self Test

Measure how well you really understand and remember the content by testing yourself on the material. Use flash cards or a study guide, or use the method of talking through the material described above—this, too, is a form of self-testing.

Use Your Resources

Check out these other related online resources about reading and note-taking:

Works Consulted

Anter, Daiek, Smilkstein, and Zadina (2014). College Reading: The Science and Strategies of Expert Readers. Cengage Learning.

Developed and shared by The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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