Paul Kei Matsuda

Reading and Learning Strategies

Just after writing my earlier post "How to Read Everything?" I found this article by David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Close the Book. Recall. Write It Down.
The best way to study for an exam? Don't just reread chapters and review notes — put everything away and then try to write down, or describe out loud, what you know. That's the conclusion of two papers recently published in psychology journals. "After you've read something once, you've gotten what you're going to get out of it," one professor says, "and then you need to go out and start applying the information."

Well, writing specialists have long been talking about the benefits of writing to read. Putting the knowledge to active use is the best way to understand and remember it.

For me, writing an article, in which I not only tell but transform knowledge (Bereiter and Scardamalia), helps me read better and learn more. I'm also focused on accomplishing a rhetorical goal (see Cumming's recent work on goal theory) or object (Engeström), rather than on learning itself. (See how I'm putting my knowledge to active use?)

Those late-night conversations (over beer) with Dwight Atkinson is also helpful, because we challenge each other and stimulate further thinking.

By the way, when I was in junior high school, I had a personal policy of not cramming for exams (including language exams). If I understand the material, I reasoned, I should be able to do well on those exams. I was somewhat naive because I didn't know that knowing something and doing well on the exams are somewhat different things because of other factors, such as the familiarity with the genre. But I did intuitively understand something about test validity.

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How to Read Everything?

The phrase "read everything" seems to have become my mantra in advising graduate students and scholars. I mentioned this when I was visiting National Chiao Tung Unviersity in Taiwan a few weeks ago, and more than a few people said they were going to start reading everything in their email message to me or even on Facebook!

Today, I just received a comment from Joe in response to my earlier blog entry on reading everything:

I've just come across this wonderful blog. Thank you so much for your valuabale advice.

People have been advicing graduate students (especially M.A. students) to read a lot. However, hardly do they talk about how to read. I have found myself struggling with reading for graduate school and so have my friends. Would you mind sharing your thoughts or your strategies on this? Do you take notes for
everything you read? Thank you, Dr. Matsuda.

Some of my answers can be found in other related blog entries (a list of related entries as well as other pieces of advice for graduate students can be found here) and in "Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student" (2003). But I don't think I've had the chance to talk about taking notes.

The answer is: I don't.

Most of the books and journals in my personal library are clean--I could sell them on ebay or Amazon anytime, though I rarely sell my books because I consider them to be important tools of my trade.

I've always found underlining or highlighting texts to be more distracting than helpful. (My suspicion was confirmed in the introductory psychology course I took during my first year in college, where the professor mentioned a study showing that underlining is not an effective strategy for studying.) I also don't like how those marks left on the pages actually constrain my reading the next time I read the same text--they distract me away from grasping the meaning in larger contexts and particularly in the context of my current thoughts. For that reason, I don't like buying books second hand or borrowing books from the library. Sadly, some people underline books from the library!

When I was a master's student, I used to buy lost of sticky tabs at Staples and put them by the line that seemed important. The idea was that I would be able to take them off when I was done, though I almost never did. (Some of my books from those days still have yellow tabs sticking out.)

I thought the sticky notes would help me find places that I needed to refer to during class discussion or when I cite the source. What I learned after a few years was that: 1) I put too many tabs that they became meaningless; 2) even when I didn't put too many of them, they made me feel as though I had to talk about all of them during the discussion or in citing that source; and 3) too often, what I ended up citing was in places other than those that were marked with the sticky tabs.

I have also tried to take notes on separate sheets. It was useful when I was preparing for comprehensive exams, but I also noticed that I seldom looked at them again unless there were specific and immediate reasons for taking notes. I tend to lose my notes in the pile of stuff in my (cluttered) offices. Some of the notes have survived because I filed them away with the articles I read, but I stopped doing this because the same filing strategy wouldn't work for books. (I find it important to develop a thinking system to be consistent so my distributed cognitition does not become disturbed cognition.)

Even if I don't lose them, I often can't reconstruct what I meant--not only because of my terrible handwriting but also because the notes are always already out of context and outdated. So I stopped taking notes and started to rely on my memory.

I don't regret having gone through these stages of trying different strategies because they probably facilitated the development of my reading strategies and the understanding of the contents. But at some point in my professional development, I took the leap of faith--I learned to trust my own intuition. I felt that it actually helped me read faster, read more, and understand the important points better. And those ideas would come back to me when I need them because I've already rehearsed the conversations as I was reading them. That is, I felt my knowledge became more contextualized.

Some people ask if I have what's called a photographic memory.

The answer is: I don't.

But I do tend to remember books by their color, and the visual design of the text. I often remember which part of the page I found the idea (e.g., top left corner of the page, about half way through the book).

Some people might wonder how I could do this with academic publications, which are visually not as distinct as, say, magazine articles or web pages. Well, I thought the same thing about houses in Arizona--they all looked the same when I moved here, but now I can appreciate individual differences among various neighborhoods and individual houses.

I've also learned not to worry about sticking to the same text in the reading process--I read regular texts like hypertexts. (People in the field of computers and composition seemed to be busy theorizing the notion of hypertext in the early 1990s, but even back then, I found the concept to be straight forward and intuitive.)

Sometimes I start thinking about a related topic as I read. If that happens, I often put down what I'm reading and start looking for other related reading materials. They may be something I've read before or sources that are mentioned in the text I'm reading. Or I may follow my hunch and go to a text that might have something related, and I often do find something interesting, which is really exciting. It's like a mental game--I have a lot of fun doing this.

I can still keep track of who said what because I try to get to know them personally. As I read, I form ideas about each author. I also try to meet them at conferences and get to know them so I know where they are coming from. Academic reading and writing to me are really like joining a conversation with a group of people I care about.

For similar reasons, I usually don't take notes when I listen to presentations. I used to take notes to ask questions, but I stopped doing that as well. After hearing countless conference presentations, I know the genre inside out, and that helps me understand where the speaker is going. (I can also tell when the speaker is not going anywhere.) If I am the respondent, I may take notes, but mostly to outline my responses (if I have to respond, that is). They are not "records" of what I write; instead, they are part of my distributed cognition.

At CCCC this year, for example, I served as a respondent for a panel with Suresh Canagarajah, Bruce Horner, Min Lu, Catherine Prendergast, and John Trimbur. I used a small notepad (courtesy of the convention hotel) to create an outline of my response as I was listening. I started doing something similar at a TESOL academic session on writing (organized by Chris Tardy and featuring Lourdes Ortega, Meg Gebhardt, Youngjoo Yi, Ilona Leki, and Miyuki Sasaki). But in the middle of the session, I decided that it wasn't working, so I took out my laptop and start creating PowerPoint slides, which became my formal response.

I also don't take notes during meetings--I remember things better if I'm engaged. When I served as the chair of the CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing, I always asked someone I trust (e.g., Jessie Moore at Elon University and Angela Dadak at American University) to take the minutes. If I do take notes, it's usually to help organize the meeting.

If there are things that I need to follow up on, I would sometimes write them down, but if I don't act on them right after the meeting, they get lost. These days, I just email those tasks to myself (or ask others to email me) so I would actually follow up on them.

My strategy, then, has been to just read, read and read, and keep adding them to my mental intertextual map. Or sometimes they get integrated into my thinking directly as I get stimulated and start developing my own ideas. I don't even write down my own ideas, either, because if it's a really good idea (and one of my criteria for a good idea is that it responds to the particular rhetorical situation), it would come back in the context of my immediate thoughts when appropriate. If not, then the idea is going to be out of place, which is what I often see in manuscripts that I read.

I used to keep a clipboard by my bed so I can write down my ideas anytime, but I gave up on that as well. If I can't remember it when I needed it, I figure, it wasn't a good idea to begin with. If it really made sense, I would have the same thought again.

Of course this leisurely approach to reading (and thinking) requires a lot of time, but that's what my profession is about--I'm in the business of acquiring and making knowledge. If I have to know everything about my field, I might as well enjoy it. It may seem impossible, but it does get easier as my content and formal schema develop.

The key is not to wait until I have to read something for my projects. When I read as I write, my reading process becomes much more focused and purposeful. That's good, but that's different from "reading everything." Rather, it is the result of reading everything; I feel I can be more focused partly because I have already developed a strong intertextual network in my mind. I often know exactly what information I need and where I can find it.

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Read Widely

Nels Highberg's comment and his related blog entry has inspired me to clarify my advice and to articulate its corollary: Read widely.

I try to keep up with the literature in both rhetoric/composition and applied linguistics/TESOL, both of which are highly interdisciplinary, drawing on various areas of humanities and social sciences. I often find myself having to go into many other fields to fully understand my own fields. And I happen to believe that borrowing ideas from other disciplines requires a deep understanding of the intellectual and historical contexts in which those ideas were developed--so I know what the idea can and cannot do as well as what my borrowing might do to my field and the field it came from.

Naturally, my reading list continues to snowball.

It's certainly impossible to have read everything in all of these (and many more) areas of knowledge. So, my advice, "read everything," is not an imperative to have read everything--a state no one will ever achieve. Rather, it's a call to begin and continue reading deeply and widely.

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"Read Everything" Again

My blog entry on reading everything seems to have generated some interesting discussion. I like what Derek Mueller says:

This paradox is the ongoing challenge, no? Read everything; to read everything is impossible. Still, one must. But cannot. Etc. The outlying factors bear down and raise related questions: write everything? How much to read before writing? While writing? How much to write while reading?
It is indeed paradoxical, especially because the professional literature keeps expanding. Nevertheless, it is important to "collect" everything, as Collin Brooke suggests, and to develop a mental map of the field that continues to evolve with the researcher's knowledge of the field.

Derek also poses an important question--when do we stop reading and start writing (or do we stop reading)? Of course the reading process never stops. As I write, I discover what I know as well as what I don't know or don't remember well, or inconsistencies in my thinking, prompting me to go back to various texts. (I sound like my dear friend Don Murray when I say this.)

When I was an MA student, I approached the process of reading to write as "information crunching"--and I had the image of defragmenting hard-drives in mind. I would type up relevant passages into the document, break them up into smaller clusters, rearrange them to fit the evolving organization of my own writing, and then paraphrase or summarize what I can, leaving the rest of the original texts as direct quotes.

After having read (and written) quite bit in the field (though still not enough), I began to experience what Jeff Rice describes:
At some point in my career, I found myself able to perform a pretty amazing (to me) feat when writing. I was able to pull out of my memory not details, but positions, ideas, arguments, stances from my past reading. That build-up is important. Out of it, I can write, and I can join the conversations.
My writing process changed quite a bit while I was working on my Ph.D. at Purdue. I would now just read, read, and read (though increasingly, I find myself drawing mostly on what I remember having read) and then, when I feel I have a good sense of the topic and my overall argument--the vision, if you will--for the entire article, I start drafting without looking at anything. I can often cite sources from memory, though I try to verify them later for accuracy. Then, as I read through my own writing numerous times, I keep adding more sources, this time checking the original sources for exact wording and page numbers.

I also feel that reading the professional literature has become much easier. I know what to read carefully (and several times) and what to skim through quickly because I can often predict where I might find certain arguments or pieces of information because of my genre knowledge. Sometimes I can even predict what the text is going to say before reading it based on my knowledge of what's been said and done; in those cases, reading is a matter of confirming my predictions and noting any discrepancies.

All of this may seem overwhelming to those who are only beginning to read--ahem--everything, but it'll come with practice. But it probably doesn't happen to those whose reading experience has not reached a critical mass.

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Read Everything

One of the stock pieces of advice that I give gradaute students is to "read everything." Of course it's impossible to read everything that has ever been written, but I do expect researchers to have read everything--literally everything--on subtopics within the field on which they are writing.

When I start a new project, I usually begin by collecting all the books and articles that have anything to do with that topic. I prefer to buy those books--especially those that are often cited in one of my own fields--rather than check them out from the library or through the ILL. I need to have all my intellectual tools at my disposal. That has always been my preference--even when I was a poor graduate student. Building a good professional library is an important investment.

I scan through them to explore the intertextuality--which sources get mentioned more frequently and how. I then collect more sources if I don't have them handy. Without this process, it wouldn't be possible to come up with viable research questions or to know what questions or concerns reviewers and readers might have.

Reading everything is especially important at the beginning of a researcher's career. One of the problem of novice researchers trying to read selectively is that they are not likely to have developed appropriate criteria for choosing what is important and what is not. The discernment in reading scholarly books and articles can come only from an extensive knowledge of the field, which is, after all, a synthesis of the diverse bodies of knowledge held by everyone who identifies herself or himself as a member of the field.

A novice researcher who doesn't try to read everything is like someone watching Star Wars Episode III without having watched the other five episodes. The main plot and some of the details might still be entertaining, but the person's appreciation of the film is necessarily limited by the lack of background knowledge and intertextual awareness.

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Last update: January 6, 2008