Student perspective: How to read academic articles without getting overwhelmed

Helen, the author of the blog postby Helen March, English and History student and Bristol Futures Advocate

When I first started my degree as an English and history student, I found the prospect of reading academic articles incredibly daunting. I struggled for a long time to get to grips with the language used, and learning what parts of an article were important to note down, wasting time writing every point the academic made. However, after two years of study, I have picked up some habits which will hopefully help you avoid the same pitfalls and allow you to take the most important information from an article.

So here are my top five tips to avoid getting lost in academic articles:

1. Read the conclusion after the introduction and before the rest of the article

This will help you to navigate your way through the writer’s argument. Although sometimes mentioned in the introduction, the general argument may not be clear throughout the whole article. However, reading the end means you can better understand the direction of an author’s argument before knowing exactly how they get there. If you understand the point an academic is trying to make, you can interrogate it more effectively in your work. Understanding the main argument is key when reading academic work!

Bonus tip! – The academic will sometimes note their key points in their conclusion, helpful for making subtitles to categorise your notes.

2. Read the first and last sentence of a paragraph before diving into the body of it

More often than not, this will give you a good idea of the point being made and whether it is relevant to the research you are doing. Sometimes only a small part of an article will be useful to your research, so sifting through irrelevant information will save you time in the long run.

3. Don’t get bogged down by jargon

Academic language can be complex and the sophistication of language within an article can be overwhelming. For key words you don’t understand, look them up, the oxford english dictionary is your friend! The university has a subscription (oed.com). However, don’t let yourself be entirely consumed by understanding every word within an article, generally only a few will be important. So long as you understand the general gist of a sentence, you will probably be ok! If you are too concerned with understanding every word, it becomes easy to forget the article’s main argument.

4. Just because something sounds sophisticated doesn’t mean it is

Although a quote might look appealing, it may lack actual substance. It’s better to quote and analyse something worded simply but effectively, allowing you to interrogate it in closer detail in your writing.

4. Most importantly, practice!

You won’t learn how to read an article overnight. Although the advice I have given here has hopefully made the prospect of reading academic writing less daunting, it won’t solve all your issues! Academic writing is difficult to understand and the more of it you read the more you learn how to systematically work your way through complex pieces of writing.

Have you got any useful tips for reading articles? Let us know in the comments below!

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