Learn how to structure your research and use reading grids to get the most out of your studies
This page offers some advice and useful techniques to help you decide what to read and use sources effectively.
Choosing suitable texts for an assignment
You won't have time to read everything you come across at university. Identifying useful resources can ensure your time studying is spent well.
Figure out what you need to get out of your research
- Deconstruct your assignment title. Explore what different essay task words mean to get started.
- Read any instructions you've been given.
- Highlight your relevant learning outcomes.
- Draft an assignment plan. Once you understand your assessment and marking criteria, use a pen and paper or planning software like Inspiration to record your ideas.
- Search for relevant resources. Use your assignment plan to plan your reading and identify resources that discuss your questions or ideas. Read article abstracts and browse the contents pages of books to check they look useful before you spend time on a resource. Consider what words or phrases will help you search effectively online.
- Record your sources. Bookmark important resources online in a specific folder, check books out from the library and note down important titles and information so you can revisit them later.
A reading grid can help you explore and compare ideas as you research. Think about what you need to find out – do you need to ask questions, compare and contrast theories, or look at the pros and cons of something?
Use as many grids as you like but try to use one grid for each theme or idea. You can use your completed grid to structure your assignment.
Fill in your grid while you read. Write down your key points and ideas as well as the resource details you'll need for your bibliography. Add the title, author and text type of each text to the left or right hand column in your table. Write your questions, themes, ideas or items to compare from earlier at the top of your grid columns to guide your notes.
Example reading grid
This reading grid could help an undergraduate student answer questions about zines (hand-made magazines) and identify and develop themes for their dissertation.
|Why are there still handmade zines?||Ezines/blogs — a good substitute?||Collecting ephemera: retro - cool - memory?|
|Journal: Value and validity of Art zines||Many [artists] continue to produce affordable zines despite their work being published or shown in galleries.||Some zines appear in PDF format, but PDF art zines are a poor substitute.||Theory of retro nostalgia: ‘a fondness or preference for obsolete technology...’. Zines are hard to get – limited edition.|
|Journal: Why zines matter||Writer finds their students start making own zines when taught about them. Zines need greater level of aesthetic decision-making than blogs.||Some critics predict expansion of emedia will see death of zines, books, paper media.||Zines deliberately reject many aspects of mainstream publishing. They take the form of ephemera, such as doodles.|
|Book: Fanzines. Teal Tiggs, 2010||The zine form and how it is made shape the reader’s understanding of what is being communicated.||Recent technological advances have changed how fanzines are viewed||Fanzines or zines are still hidden, ‘flying beneath the radar of mainstream publishing’. They’re like collectables – hard to find, satisfying to acquire.|
Some myths about university reading
- I need to read every word of every text: You'll only need to read some texts in full – for example if you're analysing a resource like a book chapter, poem or article.
- I'll miss something important if I don’t read everything: Using a book's contents page and skimming or scanning sections will help you find the most relevant information for your assignment and save you time. Then you can read specific chapters or paragraphs that you've identified as useful.
- A huge bibliography will impress the marker and improve my grades. Your markers will expect to see a list of resources including a range of text types like books and journals, but you should only include relevant resources. It won't help you to add a resource with no link to your assignment subject.
- I don’t need to read that much because my own ideas are the most important. You need to engage with academic reading to improve your subject knowledge, thinking and assignments. Depending on the type of assignment, you may need to support your own ideas with other literature. You should check your assignment brief to be sure.
- It doesn't matter how old my references are. Use up-to-date reading where you can (from the last 10 years, for example) unless you have a specific reason not to – like showcasing a historical perspective.