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6 Active Reading Strategies That Will Keep You On Track

Written by Christine Rees

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

How can you be active while reading? I suppose you could take your textbook to the gym (I love dad jokes…), but that’s not exactly what I had in mind for this article. When I refer to active reading, I’m talking about your brain being actively engaged with what you are reading.

If you’re getting distracted by technology, then find a way to combat it so you don’t lose focus. How many times have you jumped into a textbook without being totally interested in the content? Has this caused you to read and then re-read and then re-re-read the same paragraph because you can’t remember one sentence?

This has happened to me more often than I’d like to admit (okay, way more often), but reading without being aware of what you’re learning is pointless. It’s important to stay focused on the content because it will save you loads of time later. Active reading is a necessity while studying. 

Strategies for active reading include:

Preliminary Outline

If you know that this reading will be dense, complex, maybe a little boring, and/or difficult to process, then take a moment to scan through the pages to outline headings/subheadings on a separate piece of paper. If the headers aren’t helpful, or there aren’t any, look at the transitional sentences for clues. Basically, you’re creating an outline of what you are about to read so your brain can “plug” in the information as you go. This helps to keep everything in the right order.


Find the thesis or main idea. As your educational level increases, so does the complexity of what you’re learning. Suddenly, the thesis enjoys hiding in the second or third paragraph… maybe even somewhere on the second page. Take a moment to find it so you have a basic understanding of what the rest of the text will try to prove.

Identify vocabulary you are unfamiliar with and search up their meanings. We’re all guilty of skimming over words we vaguely understand instead of looking them up. It’s better to take a second to clarify the entire sentence rather than assume part of it. What do people say about assuming, again? That it makes an a-s-s out of you and me.

Well, there you go.

Once and a while, stop to verify that you understand the text. Then make an educated guess about what information will turn up next based on what you’ve read. Read on to determine whether or not your prediction is correct. This keeps you invested in the material.


Write questions in the margins and answer them when you’ve finished the reading. This will keep you actively engaged as you search for the solution. In addition, try to determine what motivated the author to write this. Why are you reading this book? Consider asking preliminary questions that will stimulate your brain to discover the answers.


Visualize what the author is telling you and make it come to life in your head like a movie. As you do, you will begin to see the information more plainly, and hopefully, understand the content better.

Sketching and drawing with outlines, mind maps, timelines, diagrams, and flowcharts can help you map out the information more clearly. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box by drawing your own visuals!

Analyze + Emphasize

Sometimes using a highlighter is overrated, especially if you commit highlighter roadkill with your pages. It’s easy to get carried away turning pages into colorful assortments instead of emphasizing one or two important points. Make sure you’re accentuating things that have meaning. Don’t just highlight everything.

Consider using a pencil to write in the margins. Include questions you will answer, facts that stand out, and keywords. You can use a pencil to underline or circle words that are unfamiliar to you so you can research them.


Whether you say it out loud to yourself, write a short paragraph, or explain what you’ve learned to a friend—summarizing the information will help you remember it.

Don’t make your readings harder than they have to be. Do them right the first time by actively engaging with the material and see how it improves your memory. If you’re still uncertain about this strategy, Quizlet can help you. Active reading makes a difference—and saves time—when you’re studying for exams, so use it!


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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.