Reading, Processing, and Participating in Graduate School


  • What is the author’s main point? What are they trying to convey to me as a reader? Often, in article abstracts and book introductions, the author(s) will tell you their central thesis and how they plan to back up their argument. When you finish reading an article or book, go back to that introduction or abstract and ask yourself: did the author do what they said they were going to do?
  • In writing in a particular branch of scholarship, the author(s) will often try to align their work with others’ work. To that end, what conversations or bodies of knowledge is the author trying to align with? How do they see their contribution fitting into a larger body of knowledge about a particular group of people or subject?


  • Take notes on general concepts. What are some of the big understandings from the readings you need to make sense of? If you take notes on particular ideas or quotes, include page numbers where appropriate. This will help you point to the source material during a class session. This also helps you note where the concepts are in your reading when you go back to write about them later.
  • Imagine the authors in conversation with one another. If the authors of the week’s readings came together for a discussion, what would they talk about? What would they agree on? Where would they have disagreements? What is the source of those disagreements? Going through this exercise helps you wrestle with the tensions of the readings before getting to class.
  • Create a visual representation, if appropriate. How do the broad concepts of the week’s readings connect to one another? You can create a concept map to make connections between and across readings.
  • Write the major concepts on flash cards and pull them at random. During my master’s program, our comprehensive exams allowed us only a double-sided reference page. In other words, we had to remember a fair amount of information at once. To prepare, my study group wrote all the major concepts we had learned over the past year-and-a-half on flash cards. We threw them all into a pile and pulled three at a time. We had to explain to one another how the three concepts were connected. On a smaller scale, this works later in the semester and adding to the pile as you go.


  • Connect contributions to the day’s readings/prep materials. Having informed knowledge and opinions is critical in graduate programs. For instance, in a week on intellectual development models of college students, it is essential to connect my contributions not only to my personal experiences but link it back to the readings or materials. This holds true even if you disagree with the content; point to examples of where you disagree with parts of the material or the author’s argument(s).
  • Strive for intellectual humility. The goal of engaging with the material first and foremost is to understand what the reading is trying to convey. Often, people will want to be critical of a text first and foremost. However, anyone can be critical of any piece of material. It is crucial first to understand a concept and how it is justified before reading it for filth.
  • Come with questions and observations. The first time you digest the material for the week should not be in class. To enhance your participation, especially if you are someone who needs time to gather their thoughts, is to come to class with a few questions or observations on the readings. Remember, class time is often a joint meaning-making process.
  • Making connections to others’ contributions. You are building a conversation throughout the class session. It is imperative to connect your comments to others’ comments to continue to build more complexity and nuance into the conversation. If you wanted to make a particular point and someone brings it up before you, enhance the understanding, do not restate it. In other words, how can you add to the discussion rather than summarizing or repeating it over and over?




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