Reading and research
Antony introduces this section on reading and research
- Video transcript
Antony: In this section, we will be looking at reading and research. So, for many of your assignments, you're going to need to support your arguments with high-quality academic research. To make it easier, these pages contain tips and guidance on how to search effectively and how to read well. Over the academic year, we also hold workshops on reading and research.
So please keep an eye out for these. Remember, we are here to help you.
A lot of your focus at Sussex will be on reading and researching. Finding the best resources for your subject areas and then finding the most relevant information within those resources are key skills that you will be developing. You’ll be faced with a large amount of reading of complex academic texts, and have the entire Library (and the internet) to search through, which may be more than you are used to. Follow our advice here to boost your skills and confidence in these two key areas.
What do you want to learn about?
It will be beneficial for you to work through this page in its entirety. However, if you only need to focus on aspects of reading and research consider the questions below:
- Do you understand the different reading methods for approaching texts?
If not, read through Scanning and Skimming or Understanding Difficult Texts below to see the difference.
- Do you need some tips about how to understand and stay engaged with complex texts?
If yes, look at the advice below on Questioning as you read, and Highlighting and Annotating and Summarising.
- Do you know how to research using a search engine?
If not, go to How to start searching for information below for the first steps.
- Are Booleans connectors new to you?
If yes, check out Boolean connectors below for a useful introduction.
- Do you know how to find resources in the Library – both physical books and the online databases?
If not, look at Searching Library search and beyond below to see how to start.
Find out about academic skills workshops and other support.
Reading is a major part of life at Sussex. It’s an essential part of preparing for seminars, lectures and practical work, working on assessments and revising for exams.
Your approach to a text depends on your purpose for reading it and what the text is. The way you read for initial general research is different to how you read a dense theoretical passage. Read our advice for different reading methods and check out the practice material on our Canvas site.
Ann Marie and Tavian talk about their experiences and approaches to academic reading
- Video transcript
Ann Marie: I think the first time, one of my first assessments was in Psychology, and it was to write a report. And I was so scared. It was like a 2,000-word thing and I just didn't know what to say, where to start, what to do. I didn't know anything. But the professor, she was really very sweet. And then I think she understood the issues of people who haven't really written an academic report before. So she sat me down and I was like, 'I don't really know where to start.' And she's like, the literature is the important bit, and for the literature you have to read like a lot of articles to build up an argument. And I was like, Where to start? So she's like, 'You should do this, that you should just read the abstract of any academic journal, just to begin with, because academic journals are going to be like really big, huge passages. But start with the abstract. If you think it's valuable to help you build an argument you save that as a link, save the link, keep doing that as and when you frame the answer.'
And then what you do is' then you come back to it' when you revisit it, skim through the introduction and then go back to the discussion. So the discussion is probably the main bit. What is the findings of the study which you want to take over to your article? So read the discussion, big things from the discussion and then if you need something, you can go back again to the introduction, but then that should automatically help you rather than reading the whole article and then going from one to another.
So I think that really helped me.
Tavian: When I first started, I would read every word in that chapter or two chapters, but they're meaty textbooks. They're big, they're 30-page chapters, takes a while to get through. And your concentration, at least, my concentration would go sort of halfway through. So I found that over the years, now I'm much better at just making sure I focus on the key information, sort of skimming where I think it's not as important. One of my lecturers told me that the most important bits, the introduction and then the conclusion, when it comes to reading a chapter. Obviously you need to make sure that you get all the other bits. So I really focus on trying to pull out the key information and then just focusing on that as opposed to before where I would read everything with the same amount of sort of concentration.
For quick tips on effective reading, see the Active Learning blog by Cath Senker, an Academic Skills Consultant at Sussex, and professional author.
To keep track of your reading you could make use of a to-do list app such as Trello or Microsoft To Do (previously Wunderlist). These apps allow you to set reminders for yourself that include a date and time stamp. If you decide to read a text later, you could set a reminder.
Saira and Reuben talk about skills and techniques of academic reading
- Video transcript
Saira; So when I first came to university, I used to print out all of the readings and then highlight them. And whilst it was good, I'd say it was very time consuming and a lot of the time when it came to the exams, I didn't need to know all of that like the back of my hand. So learning how to skim read, I say, is a really good skill to have. And what I do is every time I have readings, I'll read the introduction, read the conclusion, and then read-usually they have subheadings, so I'll just skim through the middle - and just try to get an understanding of what it is that the paper is actually trying to say. And then when it comes to doing my exams, I'll usually copy and paste quotes and put that into a separate document, and then that'll just help me when it comes to referencing and things like that.
Reuben; There is a lot of reading to do, but there's lots of ways to make it feel like a lot less reading. And if you're having a bad week or you've missed everything out, I have a lot of advice from tutors and other students that say, just go through and read the beginning, which could be the abstract and / or the introduction, and read the very, very end - conclusion or just the last bit of the article - and then just have a bit of thinking around that, highlight a few things. And if you're at that place, write a couple of notes and then from there you can try and do that - one reading is better than no readings. So as long as you've got something down and then eventually you realise actually you could do quite a few readings like that. And then when you've got time, just go back to the middle of the readings or at the times you're getting really into it, you realise that this is the one that fits exactly what I'm thinking or I'm interested about and start reading the headings and then just go back and slowly go through the content. Even if you realise you only get halfway through the article and then you quickly read the conclusion just to highlight some quotes and save them, copy and paste them and stick them somewhere and make sure though that you put the reference with it. So even if you're not exactly perfectly referencing it then, make sure you've got the page that is on and the article that it came from. You can always go back, because if you start copying paste and things, it looks like maybe your own words later. And yeah, you can do plagiarism by mistake. So yeah, but I just always just grab quotes. That's what I do. Just keep grabbing quotes that seem interesting to me and then it makes it so much smoother for my essays.
The six sections below will help you understand the key aspects of good reading techniques and include tips and guidance.
- Scanning and skimming
Scanning the text and skim reading are methods for getting an overview of the text to decide what it is about and whether it is relevant.
You scan text when you are checking to see whether a passage contains the particular information that you want. Think about times when you look quickly through a company website to find their phone number – this is scanning.
In academic texts you use scanning by:
- Looking for relevant key words in the contents and index pages.
- Running your finger down the page or using the Find function online to search for key words.
- Searching rapidly through a text for a specific name, figure or word to answer a particular question.
Skimming is useful when you want to quickly take a bird's eye view of a text to understand the topic and the structure. Imagine quickly reading through a news article to get the main gist of the story but bypassing the detail – this is skimming.
In academic texts, you use skimming by:
RememberScanning is looking for detail, but only for individual words. Skimming is gaining an overview of what you are reading.
- Running your finger down the middle of the page to glean the main ideas of the text.
- Reading summaries, headings and subheadings Look at tables, diagrams, illustrations etc.
- Reading the topic sentence - usually the first sentence - of each paragraph to see what it is about.
- Understanding Difficult Texts
Sussex student in the library looking at a large selection of books
Scanning and skimming are initial reading techniques. Once you have identified a text as useful, you will need to read it slowly and in depth. Reading an academic text rigorously can be hard. There are a lot of ideas and information, and you will usually have to read the text more than once to understand it. Here are some helpful techniques:
- Don't start with a complex text on a new topic. Try reading a basic introduction to kickstart your knowledge. Wikipedia is very useful for this (though don't use Wikipedia as a source for your assignments).
- Make sure you have skim read the text first to understand the main ideas and the line of reasoning.
- Don't wait until the end of the text before questioning whether you understood everything. Try at the end of each paragraph.
- The first sentence often tells you what the paragraph is about. To see how the author has developed the idea, read the last sentence of the paragraph.
- If you don't understand a section, take it slowly. Re-read the paragraphs before and after the difficult passage and then read the hard part again.
- Re-read whole sentences, not just individual words or phrases. You’re trying to understand an entire idea, which is the sentence.
- Having to re-read paragraphs is normal and not something to worry about. Some academics are confusing writers!
- If a phrase keeps appearing, check you understand it. If a book has a glossary, refer to this before you look in a dictionary. Some words have technical meanings that are different to their everyday usage.
- See if you can read about the idea in a different source.
- Look at any tables, diagrams and graphs in the text.
- Talk to friends on your module about the reading.
- Ask your tutors to discuss the material with you in their office hours.
- If you are having real difficulty, have a break and come back to the text later.
- Don’t get caught up in passages that are complicated if they aren’t relevant. Remember your reason for reading the text.
- Questioning as you read
Having some questions to ask yourself and the text can help keep you focussed, aid your comprehension, and get you thinking critically.
The exact questions you ask depend on the type of text you are reading, and you may add more questions as you become more familiar with the author’s ideas and arguments. For now, here are some general questions to think about:
- What do I know about this topic?
- What opinions do I have about the topic?
- Why do I think this?
- What do I want to find out?
Questioning the writing
- What is the author's main argument?
- How good is the evidence for the argument?
- Is it convincing? Why/ why not?
- What are the limitations or flaws in the evidence?
- What are the implications of the main argument?
- Can the theory be disproved or is it too general?
- Which examples would prove the opposite theory?
- What are the alternatives?
- Does this text agree or disagree with other texts I have read?
Sussex sudents working in the library
Forming your own opinion
- Do I agree with the writer? If so, why?
- Have I changed my original opinion?
- How do the author's ideas fit in with my own?
- How do they fit with other relevant theories/ideas?
- How does they contrast with other theories/ideas?
- Is my own theory/idea still valid? If so, why?
- Which bits of the author's argument do I want to use/ reflect on in my assessment?
- Highlighting and annotating
When you are reading, focus on identifying the main points. Read a section of text. When you have found the key points, highlight them. Add notes with your thoughts or questions about the argument. Go to Note-making for more advice.RememberDon't write on library books. You can use sticky notes to mark important sections or photocopy useful pages and annotate your copy.
Summarising what you have read encourages you to focus and to remember key points.
Think about how you would explain what you have learnt to somebody else. In what order would you present the material?
When writing, you often need to briefly summarise an author's argument in your own words to support your argument or provide a counter-argument.
A summary should be brief. Refer to the sections that you have highlighted and annotated. Likewise, use the author's conclusions and introductions, because this is where they draw together their ideas.
Ask yourself questions to guide your summary: What? Why? When? Where? How?
- Reading with Concentration and Speed
Here are some tips to help you keep focus while reading:
- Think about where you focus best on your reading. This may be at home or in a calm place away from distractions, such as the Library.
- What time of day do you read best? Try to stick to times when you are focused and alert. Straight after a heavy lunch usually doesn’t work.
- Notice if you find reading easier on a screen or on paper. If you prefer reading on paper, try to find books in the Library for some of your reading.
- Do you find yourself getting tired when reading? That is normal. Practise reading academic texts for 20 minutes at a time, and increase this by 5 minutes each day.
- You cannot read intensively for hours. Divide up reading time into several short sessions rather than a single long one. Each session should be around 20 minutes. If sessions are too short, you will not have time to get into the frame of thinking required. Observe and improve your own habits.
- A good reading tip to stay focused is stopping after a few paragraphs and trying to predict what will come next, or what will be in the conclusion. Read carefully to see if you were correct.
- Adapt your reading speed according to the text and the purpose of your reading. How fast you go will depend on what you already know about the subject, how difficult the text is, and how thoroughly you need to understand it.
- Moving your finger down the page can help increase your reading speed as your eyes follow.
Amelia and Georgia talk about their understanding of academic reading
- Video transcript
Amelia: I'm bad at reading - it's definitely not one of my best things and I'm hopefully going to get better at it. But what I try to do is 30 minutes sitting down, focusing on my reading, setting a timer and reading, turning off notifications, doing everything I can to just read: 30 minutes and then 5 minutes break and then 30 minutes back on and try to do that for 2 or 3 hours. Yeah, but reading is hard. It's probably one of the hardest things to do.
Georgia: Reading something that's really tricky. And definitely I spend way too much time on it at the beginning, not in spending the time reading, which is useful, but the way I read it was not time effective. I would spend sort of, you know, reading 30-page chapters or something like that, which is what was being given to us or long journal articles and reading every single bit. And it just wasn't, I wasn't capable of keeping up with that and also maintaining my studies and, you know, some form of a social life. And I learnt through some advice from like my academic advisors and things about figuring out what was the most important to take from those readings. So I had to do a reading for a seminar this week. And if it was a shorter one sort of skimming through the key points, if it's a longer one and it's a journal article, I would tend to go read the abstract to understand roughly what the journal article was saying. And then I would go to the discussion to get a brief understanding of in more depth the results. And then normally it's quite useful. I would then go to some of the methods to look at things like what the participants were or what resources they were using. And then that way you can get quite a bit out of the reading and you can go to specific parts as well if you need extra information in some ways.
Amelia: Well, okay, as becoming not only a student but as an adult - and this is something my parents always said to me is like 'you want to understand the world more, you have to read more'. And reading is a really good skill and knowing how to read is super beneficial and also makes you a way better writer. People who are good at writing read a lot - period, the end.
The sections below will help you to start searching effectively for high quality academic literature and include tips and guidance.
Before you start searching, you need to prepare your search. Think about what you want to find out.
Analyse your topic or research question and identify suitable keywords, phrases and synonyms (alternative words that have a similar meaning) that will enable you to find relevant sources when searching.
Once you have considered all the relevant search words and synonyms, you will need to connect them together in the search engine or database. This can be done using search connectors, known as Boolean operators. See the Boolean Searching page to learn how. Combining your search words using connectors can improve the relevancy of your results.
Sussex students searching for books in the library
Other information you will need
- Identifying search words
To get started with your search, you need to have a clear understanding of what you are being asked to research, write about, or answer.
First, consider the following:
- What is the focus of the question?
- What is your understanding of this topic?
Second, break down your topic or question by keywords.
These words will form the basis of your search.Example research topic:
"Discuss the prevalence of cheating in exams at university"
The three key terms or words are:
Search similar terms or phrases as well as the keywords in your research question, for example, searching the US word "college" as well as "university".
Search a variety of keywords, as not every author will use the exact same terms as your question.
Keep a thesaurus to hand to identify synonyms.
Think also about differences in spellings and terminology, and incorporate alternatives into your search strategy.Example:
- behaviour (English UK spelling)
- behavior (English US spelling)
- Boolean connectors
You can combine multiple search words together in search databases using connectors. Connectors can sometimes be referred to as Boolean connectors or Boolean operators.
The most common Boolean connectors are: AND, OR, NOT.
Why use Boolean connectors?
Combining your search words using connectors can improve the relevancy of your results, because connectors cause the search engine or database you are using to search your keywords in a more specific and filtered way.
In many databases, if you don't use a connector between your search words the AND connector automatically applies to your search.
For example, the keyword search: Brexit voting Wales would be interpreted as Brexit AND voting AND Wales.
Using AND between search words will:
- instruct to the database to ensure ALL the search terms are present in the search results
- narrow/refine your search results
voting AND Europe
Search results will include both of these words anywhere in the text.
Using OR between your search words will:
- connect two or more similar concepts or keywords together, instructing the database to find ANY of your search terms present in the search results
- broaden your search results
voting OR elections
Search results will include either voting, elections, or both anywhere in the text.
Using NOT between search words will:
- eliminate an element from your search
- narrow/refine your search results
(voting AND Europe) NOT Italy
Search results will include both of the words in the bracket where the word "Italy" does not also appear.
This type connector is good to use when you know what you do NOT want to appear in your search results.
- Database search tips
Most academic databases automatically put a Boolean AND between your search terms if you don't use a connector.
This means that the words you search will be present in your search results, but they may not be next to each other. This will have an effect on the number and relevancy of your search results.
If you have two or more words that you want to find next to one another you can easily search for them by placing them in double quotation marks.For example:
Searching multiple forms of the same word at once
Truncation, also called stem searching, is a technique that broadens your search to search various forms of a word at once, by searching the root word followed by the truncation symbol *.
The database will return results that include any ending of that root word.For example:
searching the root word: child*
finds: child, childs, children, childrens, childhoodTruncation symbols may vary by database. Common symbols include: *, !, ?, or #. To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.
- Searching Library Search and beyond
Sussex students in the library
You can access many different sources of information through the University of Sussex Library for your studies. As well as printed materials in the Library, you have access to a wide range of online resources such as e-books, online journals, reports, statistics and databases.
Library Search is the search tool for the major collections available through the Library. Library Search searches the books, e-books, journals, content available through the Library's databases, and a huge index of article-level content (from e-journals, conferences, newspapers and more).
To learn more about searching within Library Search, have a look at the Library Search guide.
Although Library Search does search across most of our resources, it doesn't search every specialist database we have access to. There are some particular subjects, such as Business or Law, where it is better to search the specialist subject-specific resources found in the Online Resources A - Z link on the Library homepage.
Online Resources A - Z
The Library subscribes to hundreds of specialist online resources, and searching Library Search will not search all of these resources.
They include databases like JSTOR, Scopus, and Web of Science. You can search these specialist databases by clicking the Online Resources A - Z tab on the Library homepage.
There you will find an alphabetised directory of all the online resources the Library subscribes to. Use the A - Z tabs to find the resource you want, e.g "J" for JSTOR. If you are not sure which resources to use, refer to your Subject Guide.
Searching the most relevant database for your subject
Your Subject Guide provides you with a list of key resources relevant to your subject area, for example: Literature Online (LION) for English and Drama. Search across a number of resources and databases to find specialist subject research.
Your Subject Guide can be found on the Online Resources A - Z page. You will also find guides to finding general information resources - such as statistics and official publications.
What is a database?
Databases are like online libraries that provide access to a variety of research materials. Each database provides access to a specific collection of research, and can be subject or discipline specific. Databases make it easy to search thousands of journal collections at once.
Each database in the A-Z will provide access to a variety of different materials; five of the most common materials are:
- scholarly journal articles
- magazine articles
- newspaper articles
- conference papers
Searching online databases provides access to research collections which in turn leads to book chapters, journal articles, theses and more.
Activity: Strategy to Search
Put the sentences below in the correct order to help enable you to create the strategy to search online resources most effectively (there is a text only version below the activity):
- Text only version for the activity above (with answers)
The six sentences below are in a random order. Think about what order these sentences should be in to help enable you to create the strategy to search online resources most effectively.
a. Search appropriate databases and online resources
b. Combine keywords using connectors and wildcards
c. Save your search and material found
d. Make a list of alternative terms
e. Identify your topic's key words/terms
f. Refine search results using database search filters
Now the six sentences below are in the correct order:
1. Identify your topic's key words/terms
2. Make a list of alternative terms
3. Combine keywords using connectors and wildcards
4. Search appropriate databases and online resources
5. Refine search results using database search filters
6. Save your search and material found