Academic reading and year 1 academic course books

The first year of many university courses relies on books which offer an introduction to the module subject. For example, Introduction to Psychology, or Essentials of Business and Marketing. These books are long, at around 500 pages, and contain a significant proportion of the weekly reading required for the course. International students can find these books intimidating and find the chapters confusing and difficult to navigate, so this post offers some useful strategies and approaches to counter this problem.



One basic principle of all academic reading is selecting relevant information from a text. So, for example, if a student is instructed to read a book or article by their professor, the student should try to identify the relevant paragraphs or pages or chapters from the book or article, and read these, rather than reading the whole text. This approach becomes crucial in years 2 and 3 when the quantity of weekly reading required increases.

In terms of applying this principle to academic coursebooks, the best place to start is by using the list of learning outcomes at the start of each chapter, and the synopsis or summary at the end of each chapter. Some coursebooks have both learning outcomes and a synopsis/summary, but almost all coursebooks have one or the other. The learning outcomes function as a bullet-point guide to the main ideas in the chapter, and the synopsis provides a short summary of each main idea.  The weekly lecture for the course should indicate to the student what the important ideas are, and then the student can use the learning outcomes or synopsis/summary to locate these ideas in the chapter.

If you are struggling for time, one useful strategy is to rank the ideas in the chapter in order of importance, and only study the top three. However, it is important that you take notes on each of the main ideas, in which you try to summarise each one in your own words. The use of notes is important both for memorising and checking that you understand the idea.



International students often struggle with academic theory and models. In some cases, such as business marketing or in economics, the theories are easier to understand because they relate clearly to ordinary life and common experience. However, in other subjects, the theories or models are more unfamiliar and try to analyse trends or behaviours which are new to the student.  In academic coursebooks, the models are usually described in the text and represented via a graphic or an image. For an international student, the graphic representation is frequently easier to understand than the text description.

So, a student who needs to understand five or six theories in a week should start with ensuring they understand all the words which label the theory diagram. Equally, understanding the form of the model is important: why does the model take the shape of a triangle or circle, or what do the x and y axis lines of the graph represent? The meanings of different colours and shapes can also be significant. Finally, a google image search to find simpler representations of the model or theory is another worthwhile strategy.

Remember that you can annotate photos very easily using a wide variety of apps and software packages, so you don’t always have to annotate the images in your coursebook.



One reason why students struggle to understand year 1 coursebooks is because of problems in the organisation of the books. Firstly, the books can be shorter versions of longer books, for example when a 400 page book is produced from an 800 page book. When publishers produce these shorter versions they often create continuity problems such as a lack of logical connection or progression between one idea and another in a chapter. This is because the main points have been removed to reduce the length of the chapter, and one of the removed points was the connection between two remaining ones. Secondly, sometimes publishers neglect to change the learning outcomes or synopsis when they change the text in a chapter. So, a main idea listed in the learning outcomes may not feature in the chapter or appears later or earlier in the chapter than the learning outcomes indicate. Finally, remember that publishers produce multiple editions of the same book, and that continuity problems can occur because of the changes made to improve each successive edition.



The contents page of a coursebook can be very helpful to an international student. In the best coursebooks many of the ideas in a chapter are listed in the contents page in the opening pages of the book, with the page number for each idea listed as well. Equally, the index can be helpful, particularly where analysis of one theory is repeated or discussed several times, and the student can learn about the theory by reading each one of these. However, when using an index, a student should realise that the name of the thinker who created the theory may be used instead of the name of the theory, or vice versa. So, a student should search for both the thinker and the theory in the index.

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