One of the places where the phrase "taking responsibility for your own learning" becomes really meaningful, is the UCT library system. The library often feels very intimidating to students at first, as it is so big and the arrangements seem very complicated. It is worth taking some time to explore the many different ways in which the library can help you with your studies.

The different parts of the library are useful at different times and for various needs. As a first year student, especially if you are in the Faculties of Social Sciences and Arts, you will probably be required to read books or articles that are in the Short Loan section of the library. Other immediate study needs, like looking up definitions or doing preliminary investigations into any subject area, can be met in the Reference sections. More in-depth readings, or special interest questions, can be pursued in the main book stacks, the current periodicals reading room, or specialised places like the African studies library. What you actually do in each section will vary, and can include a quick check to verify a date or name, or extensive browsing. You will need to become familiar with the computerised catalogue (called BORIS) and other "hi-tec" features like the CD-ROM.

There are pamphlets and handouts available in the library, explaining how to use these different services. In addition, you should sign up for one of the guided tours of the library, which will help you find your way around. Once lectures have started, ask your lecturers if they have arranged special library programmes as the library runs many specialised subject courses. There are also always librarians on duty who are willing and able to help with your queries

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)



The amount of reading required of students in different faculties does vary, but no matter what courses you are registered for, you are likely to spend more time reading than you have before. Reading is one of the major ways in which you will learn at university. Reading for pleasure is an important leisure pursuit for many people, and if English is your second or additional language, then reading can also contribute a lot to the improvement of your English.

As a reader, you are not simply a "blank slate" onto which the ideas in

the text are re-written. Reading is actually an interactive process during which your pre-existing ideas influence how you understand the ideas embodied in the text. If an author is writing about something you are very familiar with, or something you agree with, or something you are already interested in, then you may find this text easy to read. Someone else, who disagrees with these ideas, or who has never heard of them before, may find them difficult, contradictory, illogical or impossible to understand. If the meaning of a text were situated entirely within the text, then everyone who read the text would agree on its meaning; we know that this is not always so, and this can be explained by this view of "active reading" where the reader interacts with the text. Knowing this, as well as being able to choose the most useful strategy (see section below on Different Kinds of Reading), might help you to read more efficiently, more productively, and with greater confidence.

In the Lectures section, we encouraged you to be an active listener in lectures. This involved identifying the topic or purpose of the lecture, preparing your mind by asking questions and recalling prior knowledge, and taking notes. It is necessary also to be active when reading. This "active reading" also involves understanding your own purpose or purposes, selecting appropriate strategies and making notes.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)



Before you select a text, or before you start reading a selected text, ask yourself why you are reading it. Is it an assignment for a tutorial? In that case, are there accompanying questions that you should try to answer for that tutorial? Are you reading in preparation for an essay? In that case, you should already have a clear understanding of the essay topic and its requirements. Are you reading to consolidate some knowledge before examinations? Are you reading over something completely new as a way of preparing for a lecture? Are you following up a reference mostly for your own interest? Once you have a clear idea what you need to get out of your reading, you are more likely to choose the appropriate kind of text (if it is not already prescribed) and the appropriate strategy.

1. Different kinds of reading material

Different purposes require different kinds of reading material. It is important to know where to find particular kinds of information. If you need to find out what a word means, you know you can consult a dictionary. Of course this is often a good beginning, but it is important to remember that there is a difference between everyday use of the language and academic use of the language. An example of this is the word "argument" which has means one thing in everyday usage, but something a bit different in academic usage. If you want to find out more about a word that has a particular meaning in your own subject area, then you need a subject dictionary.


The word "character" for instance, will mean different things to students of literature, drama, mathematics and computer science. Always make sure that the material you are reading is appropriate to your subject or discipline.

If you want a piece of information that has long been established and accepted, it will be found in an encyclopaedia or a textbook, but if you want to survey the most up-to-date research findings, the latest volume of a journal or periodical will be most useful. In some disciplines in, for instance, the Social Sciences, it is useful to read the newspapers as this is where a lot of current views are expressed. In your first year at university, your lecturers and tutors will, most probably, offer very specific guidelines for reading materials, so finding the correct kind of reading material will not be a big problem, but it is often interesting and rewarding to explore further readings anyway. The more you read on a subject, the more familiar you will become with the whole field of study, including the language used and the range of opinions. Whether you are venturing further than the reading list because you want to or because you have to, the librarians and student assistants on the 5th level of the Jagger library are always available and helpful.

2. Different kinds of reading strategies

There are as many different types of reading, and efficiency in either of these skills depends on choosing the appropriate method for your particular purpose.

Listed below are three approaches to reading:


overview: broad; use for selection

preview: narrow

inview: closely focused

In the "pre-reading" stage, you would select a text that suits your purposes. Usually, in your first year, departments will give you a specific reading list for each assignment, but you might still be interested to see what else is available on the subject. Even within the range of titles on the reading list you will probably want to be selective, even if it is just to decide which book or article to read first, or devote more time to.

In the light of your assignment topic, you could look at the following features of the books to decide which ones are more relevant or seem to offer the kind of information you are seeking:

  • The title and subtitle of academic books usually reveal the central concerns addressed by the book.
  • The front and back covers of the book usually display the blurb. It includes the publisherís description of what the book is about and comments by reviewers or other experts in that field. Useful information that you might find here could be an indication of who the author is and what his or her perspective is on the topic. The blurb might also reveal whom the book is written for - if it is aimed at postgraduate scholars working in a particular field it might well be too detailed to be of use to you at this stage. If it is too general, or written at too basic a level, it might not tell you anything you do not already know, and you might decide it would be a waste of time to read it. The contents page is always at the front of the book, and can be very helpful, especially if the chapters are by different authors. You can choose the chapter by an author who is familiar to you, or well known in the field of study. You might be able to tell from the chapter titles and subtitles which parts of the book would be most useful to you.
  • The printing history is usually found on the back of the title page. It will contain the date the book was first published, how many editions there have been, how many reprintings there have been. If you are only looking for recent information, or information since a certain date, then glancing at this page might eliminate a book from your list, or confirm for you that it is important.

Having previewed several texts (as outlined above), and finally chosen one, it is still better not just to open the book at page one, begin reading, and plod through to the end. Your understanding of any text will be enhanced by conducting an overview. This kind of reading is sometimes also called skimming.

When you enter a room for the first time, you glance around to get your bearings. You establish some "landmarks", for instance, "Oh, there are two windows," "Thereís a table in the middle," or "Thereís a sliding glass door at the back." Although you donít know every detail of whatís in the room, or whether the doors and windows work properly, you have a general impression of the room and could probably say whether it was a dentistís surgery or a hairdresserís or a familyís sitting room. Now, when you approach a piece of text for the first time, you can use the same sort of strategy. Instead of getting straight into the details, take a little time to look around, or overview, the whole text.

Letís say youíve got to read an article or a chapter in a book in preparation for an essay you are writing. In order to get an overview of the article, you would begin by reading the title, any subtitles and any words that are emphasised, perhaps by being printed in italics or bold type. If, for instance, an article is entitled: Intelligence and IQ: Nature or nurture? then the fact that the title is in the form of a question might suggest to you that the author is going to present more than one side of this argument. Subtitles like: The History of IQ Testing clearly reflect what that section of the article is about.

Flip through the article and note whether there are illustrations. Graphs or tables can often reveal what kind of argument an author is making and what kind of evidence he or she is using. Pictures and diagrams are also useful because they can highlight main points, and can also make the subject seem easier to understand.

Other strategies you can employ are: Read the introduction and conclusion, as this is often where the author will summarise his or her whole argument; read the first and last paragraph of each section; read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. This should give you an idea of the structure of the article, without any distracting details. These details can be filled in slowly as you read through the article again, doing the kind of reading we call inview.

Once you have some general ideas about the article, and you believe that, for your purposes, it will be necessary for you to read and understand the article more fully, then you begin a careful, detailed reading. As you do this kind of reading, you can take your time, going back to check on points the author made a few paragraphs back or facts that you donít remember. The purpose here is for you to recognise the authorís argument. This involves identifying the facts or information the author is presenting, the authorís point of view (which is sometimes hidden) and the authorís interpretation of the data or information. You also need to see the connections she or he is making between the different ideas and understand how the conclusion is reached. As an active reader, it is up to you to question the text and to think about what ideas and presuppositions you bring with you. You might ask questions like:

Do I agree with the authorís basic assumptions?

Are there some facts that have been left out or misinterpreted?

Do I dislike this argument because it challenges my own beliefs?

How does this fit in with other things Iíve read on this subject?

Does the authorís conclusion seem logical and well supported?

What is this authorís bias or position?

This questioning approach to reading will help you to develop a critical and analytical approach to the information and ideas you are reading about. Part of your active reading process should also be making notes on what you read.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)



For more information on note-taking, see the section on note-taking at university.

Many of the purposes for which you will read at university also require you to make notes on that reading. If you are reading to prepare for examinations or tests, you will want to have notes to refer to when you revise. If you are reading for the purpose of writing an essay or assignment, then you will need notes so that your references will be accurate, and so that you remember the points that are relevant to your topic.

There are different ways of making notes from your readings. If you own the book or course reader, or have made your own photocopy of the text, then you may want to underline the important points or highlight them with a highlighter pen. One of the problems with this kind of note-making is that it is very easy, and can be done quite mechanically. Sometimes students read very carefully, underlining or highlighting as they go, and when they get to the end they realise they have underlined the whole paragraph, or sometimes even the whole page. This means that they have failed to separate the main point out from all the other supporting points. When they return to this reading material, they will have to read the whole page or section again, instead of just being able to locate the main point immediately. Remember that the notes you make from your readings serve the same purpose as the notes you take in lectures - they serve as the "raw material" which you will use to build up the essays, assignments and other work that you are required to produce for your courses.

If you own the material, selected underlining/ highlighting can be supplemented with notes made in the margins. These can vary from simple numbering to short summaries of the paragraphs. These brief summaries are often very useful because making them involves thinking about the material and using your own words to relate the main points. The limited space can be a problem, and illegible, squashed notes are almost useless.


If the material is not your own, but has been borrowed from the library or someone else, then you will have to make notes on a separate page. You should always carefully copy down the full details of the text (title, author, date of publication, name of publisher and pages) so that you can refer to it correctly in your essay or assignment (see the section on Essay writing for referencing conventions).

The way you make notes can vary according to your preferences and purpose. You can choose from the same styles that were described in the chapter on Lectures. These were linear notes and mindmapping notes. A good test of your comprehension is to write a summary of the article or chapter you have read. This also serves as a good reminder to you later of what was important about the reading. Actually writing out a summary, as opposed to point form notes, is an opportunity for you to practise using the language of the subject, and will help you to pinpoint concepts that you donít understand very clearly.

As with lecture notes, it is important that your notes reflect your understanding of the material as well as your own critical response to it. Again, as with the lecture notes, your notes on the readings will only be helpful if you can find them when you need them, and if you actually do use them.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)


If you are reading and you come across a word which you do not understand, you can often work out the meaning without having to interrupt your reading to look it up in a dictionary. In fact, your first strategy should be to read the sentence, and see whether you can get the gist of it without actually understanding the word. If you can, then rather wait till later to find out exactly what the word means. Sometimes it is more important to just get the sense of what is being said than to find out the precise meaning of one word.

If, however, you decide that you cannot understand the sentence without understanding the word, then you will need to think a little bit about what the word means. Sometimes, especially if a word looks long and complicated, the structure of the word gives a clue. For example, if the word you donít understand is "subterranean" and you know that "sub" means under or beneath (as in submerge or submarine), you might be able to figure out enough of the meaning to be going on with, even if you donít know what "-terranean" means.

If you cannot follow the meaning of the sentence without the word, and there are no useful prefixes or pieces of the word that can help you figure out its meaning, it is sometimes useful to use the clues in the context (the sentence or the paragraph). For example, read the following sentence: "In Britain, the 1944 Education Act established the tripartite system of education." If you donít know what the word "tripartite" means, and you donít know about the prefix "tri-", then you could guess the meaning of the word by reading the next sentence: "Children were allocated to one of three types of school ...." where more details of the system allow you to guess what the word "tripartite" means.

If you cannot work out the meaning of a word yourself, then you will have to turn to the dictionary. This is not a bad thing to do, it is just that in some reading situations it should be treated as a last resort, as it can be very difficult to follow an authorís argument if you are constantly having to interrupt your reading to consult the dictionary.

It is worth spending some time getting to know how to use the dictionary. Read the page(s) where the format and conventions of the dictionary entries are explained, so that you are able to access and use the information supplied in this form.

Once you have worked out what a word means, or looked it up, it is worth trying to remember it, so that you donít have to look it up again next time you see it, and also so that it is available to you when you write your essays and assignments. Some students keep a little notebook in which they write down all the new words they are learning, and the explanations of those words. Others may list them at the back of their textbooks or course readers. If you are using the double column method of lecture note-taking, the second column of your notes is a useful place to note down newly learnt words and their meanings. Try using your new vocabulary in tutorials, assignments and essays, as the feedback you receive you will help you modify and refine your understanding of new words, especially those that are subject-specific.

(Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)


UCT libraries

Online Catalogue

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Reading and study skills on the web

Taking notes from a text book

Reading/understanding essays

Reading difficult material

Reading in the sciences

Skimming and scanning scientific material

Reading in maths and science

Writing a summary