How to speed read your way to success

Every student will find themselves with an insurmountable pile of reading in front of them at some point. Whether you’ve left it to the last minute, or your module convenors refuse to acknowledge the existence of other modules, these tips will help with the task ahead. The important thing is not to worry too much if you’re running a little short on time: what’s important is what you do with it. And if you’re trying to speed read this article, start with the penultimate paragraph: you’ll know what to do.

Break it down

If you’ve got a long reading, make sure to take adequate breaks. The regularity of these depends a lot on the type of person you are. Some swear by the Pomodoro technique of 25 minutes work, 5 minutes break, repeat. During the break, do something that has a fixed time limit on it: i.e. instead of checking Facebook, watch one skit from a comedian you like or sing one Ed Sheeran song into your hairbrush.

During the break, do something that has a fixed time limit on it

Get in the flow

For many, the Pomodoro technique doesn’t work because it breaks the ‘flow’, or because you can’t visualise the end. If this is you, a handy trick is the 15-minute golden rule. Set yourself a certain quantity to finish (say, a chapter or 20 pages of an essay). If 15 minutes into the reading you’re not in the flow, come back 5 minutes later. Usually the first 10 minutes are hellish but by the time the fifteenth passes, you won’t notice the time. This rule can also apply to essay writing, but again, only really works if you’re the type of person who needs to get into a ‘flow’.

Stay positive

Sometimes the relief of a 5-minute break isn’t enough of a reward. One of the first things you’ll find when looking through tips online is the concept of placing a gummy bear or an M&M at the end of each paragraph of the text you’re reading. Maybe think bigger: promise yourself a cup of tea during your next 5-minute break, or a handful of crisps.

Take notes

Every teacher or professor you’ve ever had will have told you this, but there’s a lot to be said about taking notes. It’ll improve your retention drastically, with only a small amount of effort on your part. Specifically, take notes by hand: it makes you less likely to copy word for word, which will again improve your retention rates. There’s no point doing the reading if you won’t be able to remember any of it on the spot.

Even when you’re panicking, doing any of the reading is better than none


Let’s assume that you’ve left the reading to the last possible minute and there’s no way you’ll read the whole thing before class. Start with the introduction and conclusion. You’ll get the barest essentials in the least time by reading these: the argument and the resolution. Now add some meat. Read the first and final lines of each paragraph, which should give you a clear indication of the contents. If you don’t understand these lines, read the body of the paragraph. Finally, if you’ve still got time, grab a highlighter and skim through the quotes or figures, anything that seems notable. If you pull these out, you’ll be able to create factual support for your own arguments.

Sometimes, despite being told over and over that reading ahead of time is the best way, you’ll find yourself having to resort to drastic situations. But the most important thing to remember is that, even when you’re panicking, doing any of the reading is better than none. Five minutes is all it takes to get an anchor to cling to when you’re inevitably lost in the rough seas of an intense seminar debate.


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