University Post
University of Copenhagen
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How to read a book at university

The battle against the syllabus — It's easy to feel discouraged when faced with dense scientific tomes loaded with complicated information that few people understand. We asked two professors and authors for study tips. Here are 10.

It’s one thing to master a Chemistry 101 book in high school, and something else entirely to be carpet bombed with advanced terminology and abstract scientific concepts developed by the greatest minds in the field of science.

Transitioning from high school to university can be a difficult experience. Especially, when trying to follow a string of complicated arguments that would make most people feel stupid and want to run away screaming.

Have courage! University Post spoke with two famous authors of scientific texts at University of Copenhagen, Head of the soon to be defunct MCC (Department of Media, Cognition and Communication), Maja Horst, and professor of astrophysics, Anja C. Andersen, about battling and conquering scientific literature.

Here are their best tips:

You’re going to feel stupid in the beginning – that’s okay

Anja C. Andersen: »In high school you only read books. At the university level you have to actually comprehend them. You’ll find yourself having to read paragraphs over and over again, before you finally get it. It took me a long time to get used to that when I was a student myself.«

»The best way to make sure you understand a concept is to explain it to yourself, a friend, or even just your bedroom wall. You’re going to feel stupid in the beginning – and that’s okay. Studying at a university is hard. It’s a lot of work.«

Don’t try to understand every single sentence

Maja Horst: »When I started at Political Science, I could maybe finish six pages at a time, because I wasn’t used to reading scientific literature in English. And I only managed that with a clear mind.«

»At first, don’t try to understand every single sentence, not if you’re in the Humanities or Political Science anyway. If I read the same passage twice without comprehending it, I quickly move on.«

»A good piece of advice would be to get an overview of the text and it’s various parts first. Then you have to pace yourself so you can identify the key passages and return to them later or ask a question during the lecture. And please remember, you don’t have to understand every single thing. It’s better to read all 50 pages than it is to read only the ten that you comprehend.«

If you’re scheduled to meet with your study group there’s an automatic pressure to do the reading. It’ll help you realize that your favourite show on Netflix will have to wait.

Anja C. Andersen, professor of astrophysics

Anja C. Andersen: »Part of the training is to identify the most important parts of a text – the parts that you then read again and again in order to understand them – and the parts you can skim. If you have to read every single page and understand every sentence at a profound level, you will only get through five pages, and then the semester is over and you’re in trouble.«

A little elbow grease goes a long way

Maja Horst: »If your attitude is that you just have to finish your homework and read for a couple of hours, you’re in trouble.«

»Think about it like it’s a regular day job. You start at 8:30 a.m. and work for seven and a half hours. Then you’re done by 4:30-5 p.m. if you squeeze in lunch as well. Working isn’t all fun all the time. Sometimes you just have to get it done even if you don’t really want to. That’s part of student life as well.«

Anja C. Andersen: »The only tool you have available is elbow grease. You have to sit down, turn on your study lamp, and get cracking.«

Don’t study when you’re tired

Anja C. Andersen: »I’m a better reader in the morning. I’m always getting distracted – I need to water my plants, I need to get lunch, time for dinner – and before I know it the day is over and I’m tired. Some people work better in the evening or at night, and I envy them, but the only thing that works for me is to go to bed early, set my alarm, and get to work in the morning.«

Maja Horst: »Reading is actually my least favourite part of my job because it wears me out. That means I have to do my reading with a clear mind. Thinking that you can do your reading before bed is not going to work. You may as well not even bother.«

Make the best of good days

Anja C. Andersen: »Some days you feel inspired, and other days you feel zapped. On the days you feel inspired, be sure to get a lot of reading done. That way your off-days won’t seem like such a waste of time. If you take advantage of your good days, you won’t fall behind. I can’t count on two hands how many summer, Christmas, and Easter breaks I’ve spent catching up on my reading, because I’ve fallen behind. It’s a real bummer.«

Thinking that you can do your reading before bed is not going to work.

Maja Horst, Head of MCC

Cultivate good habits, set goals for yourself

Maja Horst: »You have to set clear goals in terms of your reading schedule and it’s important to cultivate good habits, so you don’t go around feeling guilty all the time.«

»Postpone everything that can distract you, and if that’s not possible at home, go somewhere else. Many students study outside of their homes. I think that’s a great idea. I used to study at home a lot, and that tended to dissolve the boundaries between work and pleasure.«

»It is of course important that you take breaks, but be sure to follow you schedule. I usually take a break to make myself a cup of coffee. If it’s hard for me to get back to work, I make a another one. But that’s it. No more than two coffee breaks at a time. That’s about ten minutes.«

»When you set goals for yourself, they act as rewards as well. ‘If I finish reading this text, I will allow myself to do something that I like afterwards’.«

Anja C. Andersen: »Habits and routines change over time. I had a schedule that worked for me until I had children, and then it didn’t work for me anymore. People change a lot in their twenties, so don’t assume that your work routine during the first semester will work throughout your studies. It’s important to be aware of what works for you.«

Get a study group

Anja C. Andersen: »Being part of good study groups helped me tremendously. It’s hard having to pull yourself up by your bootstraps all the time, and you easily fall into the trap of excusing yourself. ‘Oh, well. I didn’t finish this today, but I will finish it tomorrow’. If you’re scheduled to meet with your study group there’s an automatic pressure to do the reading. It’ll help you realize that your favourite show on Netflix will have to wait.«

»It’s good to feel part of a community, in terms of your social life but also to draw on other people’s skills. If you’re having trouble understanding something, maybe a fellow student in your study group can help you out. Maybe they need help with something that you comprehend. That way you can work together towards fully understanding the text.«

Take notes in your text book (if allowed)

Maja Horst: »I usually use a marker to highlight passages. That way they are easier to find at a later point.«

»I had a book once that was really important to my research – Science in Action by Bruno Latour – that I had read four times with a marker in hand. At some point a colleague of mine borrowed it and subsequently lost it. He bought me a new copy, but now I can’t find my way around it anymore.«

You easily fall into the trap of excusing yourself. ‘Oh, well. I didn’t finish this today, but I will finish it tomorrow’.

Anja C. Andersen, professor of astrophysics

»Actually, I think it’s a better idea to underline key passages and then write up a short summary detailing the central concepts afterwards. It works better than trying to write everything down as you go along.«

Anja C. Andersen: »I like reading in a physical copy of a book, and I like taking notes in the margin. When writing in hand I seem to remember things better. Memory works in different ways but mine is very visual. I like to make drawings. I always remember the doodle in the corner of a page. But please experiment here and find out what works for you.«

Ask your professor

Maja Horst: »Your professor or lecturer should be able to explain to you why you’re reading a particular text. This is good to know. Knowing that it’s on the syllabus is not enough. You need to know why it’s there in the first place. So, if your professor doesn’t automatically tell you this, be sure to ask.«

Cherish the joy of reading

Anja C. Andersen: »It’s important that reading is an interesting pursuit to you. You’ve picked a field to study. Of course, some courses will have you saying ‘do I really have to go through with this?’ but you need to trust that there’s a point to all of this and that it will become apparent sooner or later. So when you read something exciting or fun, be sure to cherish that moment – the joy of learning something new.«