How to Do the Reading

(Lady Reading, Gwen John, 1909-1911.)

Instructors assign reading so that everyone comes into the next class knowing the same information about the topic for the day. In my classes, there will rarely be a lecture specifically about the reading, but you should expect to apply the knowledge you have gained from the reading to the music we listen to together, your writing assignments, and our class discussions.

So how do you read for class lectures and discussions? Here are some strategies:

  • For every reading assignment, start with the section headings–read the phrases set off from the text in large fonts first. This will give you a map to anticipate what you’re going to read in the body of the article or chapter.
  • If the reading assignment is from a standard textbook like the Hanning Concise History of Western Music: Read the chapter summary/conclusion at the end of the chapter first. It will state the chapter’s main ideas.  Keep these ideas in mind as you read, so you don’t get too hung up on all the details at first.
  • Take notes! Including questions you have, ideas for a paper, interesting ideas in the text, things you’d like to discuss further in class.
  • Think about how what you’re reading is similar to, contrasts with, contradicts, or resonates with what we’ve already read or talked about in class (you will find lots of resonances between readings).
  • RULE OF THUMB: For every hour spent in class, expect to do TWO hours of work (reading, listening, and writing) outside of class.

Here’s a sample plan to get you through the week and help you feel prepared for each class. I suggest reading everything assigned at least three times–once to get an introduction to the material, once for details, and once to refresh–because it takes time for your brain to process new material (we forget up to 60% of what we learn each day overnight!) and absorb it.

  • Friday: Read through all of the assigned reading, including linked material on blog posts. Start with the titles of the articles and/or chapters, and section headings if there are any, so you will have a sense of what topics will be covered. Then read through the text.
  • Saturday: Read closely in small sections (between section headings or chapter headings in a textbook, even by paragraph). Define words you’re unfamiliar with; make a list of new vocabulary that this reading is teaching you. Also summarize each section (or paragraph) into one sentence of your own words in your journal/notebook.
  • Sunday: Continue your close reading if you didn’t finish it yesterday. Otherwise, it can be helpful to summarize the reading even further–read through the assigned reading again, and list the main ideas, making an even shorter summary of the text than the one you did yesterday. Also reread your notes from class/reading from the past week to see if there are any common ideas between the new material and what you’ve already studied. Jot down some questions that you have about the reading.
  • Monday: Take a day off!
  • Tuesday: Read the assigned reading one last time before class. You should feel like you are familiar with all the terms used, know what’s coming next, and have specific questions about any big ideas introduced. Refine your questions from Sunday to introduce in class.
  • Thursday: Ask questions in class about anything that’s still unclear. Apply your new knowledge from the reading to assignments, activities, and music listened to in class!

Think of reading as an active activity rather than a passive one — you’re not just absorbing information; you are instead in a conversation with the author. You should be asking the author questions, arguing against them, thinking of ways their ideas might be true in some situations and false in others. One way to engage with the text more fully is by writing your half of this conversation in the margins of your book. If you’re interested in this idea, check out this article.

How to Take Notes

I HIGHLY recommend that you consider using the Cornell Strategy for taking notes. An explanation of this simple but effective system is here.

Manage your time

You will notice in the syllabus that I give written assignments and projects well before they are due. This is intended to help you organize your time and fit your coursework into your schedule. To do this successfully, here are some things I recommend:

  • Use a day planner or calendar to write down all your due dates.
  • Start projects well before they’re due. Give yourself enough time to attempt the project, make mistakes, let your brain work out new solutions (usually 24-48 hours), create a new version, revise it, and double-check it. This is a lot, which means you should give yourself a 7-10 days for a big project (more if there’s research involved!).
  • Be aware of all your due dates for ALL your classes, not just this one. Chances are good that you will have exams, papers, or large assignments due at the same time in multiple courses.  The good news is that you will know about these dates ahead of time, and can plan accordingly.
  • Do a little bit of work every day rather than doing it all in one sitting.
  • Take breaks! It’s better to work 30-50 minutes and take a 10-minute break than to force yourself to keep working for hours on end. Your brain needs time to process the information you’re cramming in there!

More resources

Here’s a great resource from UC Berkeley with tips for studying, managing time, and preparing for tests.

More ideas from Rasmussen College on how to study.

Tips for taking notes from a blog on college survival.

I highly recommend following Pens & Machine on tumblr. It’s written by a mechanical engineering student who has great tips for studying, organizing, and note-taking.

(Adapted from Dr. Jones’ Music Classes.)