How to Read and Annotate Like a Pro

Published by Hope Nelson 2 weeks ago on Mon, Apr 1, 2024 8:05 AM

Whether you’re a history, music education or chemistry major, there’s a pretty good chance that you will have to – or want to – read and annotate during your undergraduate career. You might receive assignments that specifically request close reading and annotation of an article, or you might be studying concepts in your textbook prior to class and want to retain the concepts you’ve learned so that you can ask questions in class. Annotation can be tricky because it requires a balance between too much and too little, but keeping some basic tips in mind can make the process much simpler.  

Set up a system 

The first step toward streamlining your reading and annotation processes is to have a baseline that you can personalize to specific assignments. This can start out with a color-coding system, for example. Choose colors for highlighting main ideas, underlining key definitions or whatever else works for you. Incorporate symbols into your annotation as well. Question marks for points you don’t understand, exclamation points for interesting ideas, or a hashtag for numerical information might be useful. Having a system demystifies the meaning of markings when you look back at past assignments and it may make it more manageable to get started on assignments.  

Do a thorough reading when possible 

If you have the time and judge that a close reading will benefit your understanding, always read thoroughly! Try to avoid skimming articles or chapters unless you only need to gain a general understanding of their topics or if time constraints prevent you from taking you too long to read. Being thorough and taking your time while reading helps you to absorb more information, engage in active learning and remember what you’ve read – preventing you from having to re-read later! 

Ask questions 

This tip is two-fold: first, ask questions while you’re reading the text. Note to yourself what you don’t understand. If the answer is simple and straightforward, a Google search might provide you with an adequate response. If Google can’t explain what you need to know, then ask questions the next time you attend class. This does mean that you should complete your readings before class. Otherwise, you’ll be asking questions about content that your professor may have covered in a previous session.  

Check for understanding 

There are several ways to make sure that you’re understanding what you’re reading. One useful technique is to summarize the main points of an article at the end of each section – or the entire work, if it’s short. Another technique to check your understanding is to create a quiz for yourself as you move through the reading. Create multiple-choice, short answer and even essay questions that cover content you’re learning as you’re reading it. Then, put the article to the side and answer the questions as if you were taking the quiz for a grade in class.  

Don’t forget to write things down 

It might be redundant to mention once again that you must take notes while annotating, but it’s important enough to merit its own tip. Notes are easy to make in the margins of a book that you own, but if you’re reading a rented textbook, try Post-it notes instead. Alternatively, if you’re doing an online reading, download a PDF of the article and make use of highlighting and commenting tools. Notes can take the form of questions, comments, connections to other parts of the reading and more. The ultimate goal, however, is to increase your understanding of and engagement with the reading.  

Schedule a time to read and annotate 

It’s hard to find time to sit down, read an article or textbook chapter, and annotate it. Lengthy readings can be especially tricky. To ensure that this task doesn’t get pushed to the back of your to-do-list, be deliberate about scheduling a chunk of time in your day to read and annotate. Make sure that you can take more than a few minutes at a time to work on it, as it’s easier to pick up the “big ideas” of a reading when you do most or all of it at once.  

Know why you’re doing it 

Although the purpose of reading articles and textbook chapters is obvious – to increase your knowledge of a topic – the reasons for engaging in annotation can be less evident. After all, isn’t reading about a topic enough? Yes, reading can increase knowledge, but annotation allows you to gain a deeper and more personalized understanding of the topics at hand. Making connections, asking questions, and deliberately looking for the article’s main ideas all serve to solidify the content’s meaning in your mind.  

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