The College Student’s Guide to Better Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is a skill that can make or break success in college. Being able to adapt to various writing styles and topics as a student in a healthcare field is important to overall success. This guide outlines some of the best strategies for improving reading comprehension.

Written By

Blake Huggins

- Bio

Blake Huggins is a writer, researcher, and educator based in New England. He writes widely on a range of topics with specific expertise in the higher education, healthcare, and technology spaces. An Oklahoma native, Blake holds a PhD from Boston University and has taught college courses in writing and composition, religion, and philosophy. 

last updated

04/04/2022

Reading comprehension, simply stated, is the ability to recognize, understand, and retain written text. It plays a vital role in academic performance and professional success. Research studies consistently show that students with strong reading comprehension skills outperform their peers in the classroom and beyond by wide margins.

In college, reading comprehension provides the foundation for academic study and learning, and your instructors often assume proficiency. Whether it’s learning new terms for your anatomy and physiology class, studying assigned texts for an English course, or preparing for a big exam, reading comprehension is your key to success. You’ll rely on those skills once you launch your healthcare career too as you read and analyze patient charts, memos, and other important documents.

If you feel your reading comprehension needs to be strengthened, we’ve got you covered. This guide discusses some common challenges, details concrete tips and strategies, and provides resources for improving and brushing up on your reading comprehension before you begin your college coursework.

Common Obstacles in College Level Reading Comprehension

The reading assignments you’ll face in college differ significantly from the reading you likely do in your everyday life. Reading research journals and college textbooks, for example, involves more academic language and complex concepts than reading social media posts, news feeds, or your favorite novel.

College reading requires more focus, attention, and engagement for prolonged periods than does the reading most people do every day. But what does this mean practically? And how can you prepare? Learn more about the challenges involved in college-level reading and how to approach them below

What are some of the main challenges college students face with reading comprehension?

A Large Variety of Topics and Shifts in Writing Styles

Shifting among different styles, from technical medical terminology to abstract philosophical ideas, for example, is an acquired skill. College-level reading requires navigating these shifts with ease and facility and then applying what you read to your other coursework. Though adapting to various academic writing styles can be challenging, it is not impossible with the right initiative. Learning to tackle a variety of topics and shifts in writing styles increases your chances of academic success.

Heavy Reading Load

Reading a large volume of material at a faster rate means you may have less time to process the information before moving on to the next assignment. Developing a sound process and utilizing effective time management skills will help you rise to the occasion with less stress and anxiety. Planning ahead is essential, especially if heavy reading isn’t yet your strong suit.

Lack of Motivation

Reading about topics or issues you care about is easy. In college, though, you’ll have to read and reflect upon material you may not find particularly interesting. Staying focused on a topic outside of your interest areas is difficult, especially when the reading is heavier and more complex. Consider reframing the situation and seeing it as an opportunity to expand your horizons and deepen your reading, analysis, and comprehension skills.

Age of Publication and Older Vernacular

In college, you’ll likely encounter dated texts and historical or even ancient documents. Fully understanding the intended meaning and significance in these cases is difficult, and the content may take time to parse out. Reading older publications is an opportunity to learn from the past and comparing these texts to those more recently written often gives new perspective and insight to the material being studied. Take these opportunities in stride by looking for modern application and connection, which your instructors will likely guide you toward.

English as a Second Language

Navigating reading comprehension in a language you aren’t familiar with is even more challenging. This added complication not only takes more time but also more mental capacity. If English isn’t your first language, moving between different topics and detecting dramatic shifts in writing tone or style can be especially difficult. ESL students need to set aside more time to work through the texts and seek out additional assistance.

Tips to Improve Reading Comprehension

There are several strategies you can use to enhance reading comprehension in college. These involve specific reading practices but also include preparing yourself for reading and ensuring you retain the information. Creating the right environment, considering how you interact with the text, and looking at how you process the information after you read it will all help you improve your reading comprehension. Whatever your individual struggle, know that you can improve by finding the right approach, usually made up of a combination of strategies and skills. Below are some of the most effective strategies for developing habits that can help you improve your reading comprehension.

Find the Right Environment

Multitasking doesn’t work well in general but especially when it comes to deep reading, the kind you’re likely to encounter in college coursework. Eliminating distractions starts with finding the right setting. Consider the type of environment that supports your learning and complete your reading-related tasks there as often as possible. Finding the right environment not only eliminates distractions but also creates a familiar atmosphere that is more comfortable for reading and learning.

Overview of the Text

Understanding key points and their significance is much easier if you do a quick overview of a text before diving into deep reading. Skimming a text before studying its content in detail gives a sense of structure and tells you what to expect in terms of content. Attention to these elements up front helps focus your close reading later because you already know what to expect and are essentially filling in an outline you created while previewing. You’ll likely also save time and effort in the long run by increasing your familiarity with the text and reducing extra time spent searching for information.

Break Reading Into Sections

Some texts are organized in individual sections or sub-sections by the author. These headings can help guide your reading in a more focused way. If a text doesn’t have them, consider doing this work yourself. When you overview the text, identify natural breaks or transitions and create individual sections on your own as if you’re making an outline. Then, tackle each section one at a time. Breaking reading into sections makes the task more manageable and easier to digest.

Highlight Important Information

Highlighting helps keep track of the content and gives an easy way to find the main points when you return to study it later. The key is identifying the most important information. If you highlight too much, then nothing stands out. Focus on key terms, data, or definitions and consider isolating one or two key sentences for each paragraph. Highlighting main ideas and keywords and phrases helps you work smarter, not harder.

Interact With the Text

Taking notes while you read texts not only improves comprehension and retention, it also gives you a handy cheat sheet when studying for exams and other assignments. It’s especially useful to note key terms or definitions and document any reflective questions that stem from your reading. If you encounter a word you don’t fully understand, look it up and write down the definition. This builds your vocabulary and gives you a better understanding of what you read.

Reread Confusing Sections

Especially confusing material requires extra time and effort to fully understand, which may mean multiple readings. As you read, keep track of the sections that don’t make sense initially and flag them for follow-up. Returning to these difficult portions later by rereading them, looking up confusing words, and maybe even reading the sections out loud to help you take your time with them. Rereading confusing sections until you better grasp them will help expand your understanding and deepen your reading comprehension.

Review, Summarize and Discuss

Once you’ve worked through the text in its entirety, take a break before reviewing your notes and highlights. As you review, summarize main points and paraphrase key insights to encourage deeper comprehension and lasting retention. Discussing the content and your notes can also help. Study groups are especially helpful in cementing the information you take in from reading.

Practice

The more you read, especially when you read challenging texts, the more you deepen and enhance your reading comprehension abilities. Work on your comprehension skills by reading widely and often to improve your capacity for information retention. Practicing deep reading before you enter college puts you in a better position to not only thrive in school but also to succeed professionally after

Ask for Help

Most colleges and universities have student centers focused on academic success. Seek out these resources for assistance with reading comprehension. Schools usually provide information on these centers through their main student services hub, and some even offer virtual resources in addition to on-campus help. If you think you have an issue like ADHD or a learning disability that prevents you from improving your reading comprehension, talk to a doctor. Check out these resource guides for students with ADHD or Learning Disabilities.

Specific Techniques and Skills

You can improve your competency even more by going beyond the more general approaches discussed above and adopting specific reading comprehension techniques and skills. Learning best practices for summarizing and paraphrasing along with discovering skills like textual annotation and speed reading can significantly bolster your reading ability. Some of the more popular and effective strategies for developing specific reading comprehension techniques and skills are discussed below. Adding one or more of these to an already solid set of skills, such as the ones detailed above, can increase your reading efficiency and help you tackle your college-level reading more effectively.

  • SQ4R Method for Textbook Reading Initially developed by educational psychologists in the 1940s, SQ4R remains a popular and effective reading comprehension strategy. The name is an acronym indicating each step: survey, question, read, reflect, recite, and review. You begin by giving the text a quick but comprehensive survey, making note of each key question as you skim. You then actively read the text, pausing when necessary to reflect on the information. Finally, you recite key points immediately after reading and review them regularly to ensure lasting retention.
  • Annotating Text Textual annotation (also known as marginalia) involves making notes or comments on readings that highlight important definitions, key points and pieces of evidence, and other significant features. Studies show that actively annotating a text while you read improves recall and enhances overall understanding. Annotate a text by hand with pen and paper, or utilize any number of tools available to annotate electronic files and digital content.
  • Speed Reading Speed reading helps you digest material more quickly and efficiently, a great approach if you need to work through a lot of content in a short amount of time. Effective speed reading does not comprise comprehension or information retention; it emphasizes productivity and puts you in a good position to make the most of your time when reading. Popular strategies include scanning and previewing texts ahead of time, reading larger chunks of text instead of focusing on individual words, and using a finger to quickly guide your eyes across the page.
  • Summary & Paraphrasing Strategies Summarizing and paraphrasing texts supports comprehension and helps you recall important information. Summarizing allows you to set aside details, so you can focus on key points and the most important pieces of information. Paraphrasing works similarly, except you translate the text in your own words. These tried-and-true strategies take more time than speed-reading, but they improve information retention while also honing your note-taking skills.
  • Rewordify for Simplifying Text A powerful and intuitive tool, Rewordify helps you make sense of difficult sentences that use complex or unfamiliar language. Simply type or paste a sentence or passage into the textbox and receive instant insight designed to improve understanding. This free platform regularly adds new features and proves especially useful for non-native English speakers looking to improve fluency, learn synonyms, and build vocabulary.

More Tools and Resources

Looking to delve a bit deeper into some of the strategies and reading techniques discussed in this guide? Below are additional tools to help improve your comprehension skills and deepen your overall reading experience. These tools and resources include guides and instructional videos, tips for reading medical texts, information on speed reading and efficient time management, and diagrams that visual learners will find helpful. You’ll also discover ways to enhance information retention, find reading advice specific to students in healthcare, and learn how to build your vocabulary, create a comprehension mindset, and boost your memory. Some resources even include games to help you improve your reading comprehension skills.

  • Reading Techniques from an Ivy League School Created by experts at Dartmouth University, this resource includes a 10-minute video on reading improvement and effective note-taking practices. It also details several tried-and-true reading comprehension techniques like the SQ3R method, reading rate variation, and other literacy support strategies. Students looking to build their vocabulary will find the list of pivot or signal words especially useful.
  • Cuesta College Study Guide for Reading Comprehension Drawing on scholarly research on adult literacy in America, this guide is full of resources, tips, and advice on how to improve your reading and information retention skills. It includes a valuable list of best practices, including breaking texts into small, digestible chunks, and discusses how to approach reading and studying with a mindset that enables comprehension.
  • Tips for Medical School Reading Comprehension This page covers some of the same ground as the last two resources but approaches information from a medical student’s perspective. It focuses on how to prepare for reading, what to do while you’re reading, and how to ensure that you retain and fully comprehend the material once you’ve finished reading. Additional resources include interleaving – learning about different topics at the same time – and tips for boosting your memory.
  • Iris Reading Center Since grief and the experience of loss is personal, it’s impossible for us to put ourselves in a hurting person’s shoes. We can’t fully understand the weight of their experience, so it’s important to remain patient and try to engage with them on their own terms. While being a good listener and showing up to offer help with school-related work or chores is helpful, you’ll be additionally supportive if you remain calm, collected, and patient with them.
  • Princeton’s Active Reading Strategies Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning compiled a list of reading comprehension strategies that focus on how to approach texts from an analytical point of view. For visual learners, it also includes diagrams that demonstrate how to map readings and how to recognize textual features and other important structural characteristics.