As Sherlock would say, excellent observation, my dear Watson: My strategies for reading the texts assigned to you in your seminary classes are not always enough to make sure you learn what you need to learn.
To learn from your reading you need to do more than let your eyes pass over the words.
I think a lot of students open their book and hear the the PA announcement at the start of the Indy 500:
Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!
They hit the gas and zoom forward, never stopping until they reach the end — whether their minds are processing the meaning or not.
Yes, you need to read differently in the case of primary sources and other dense texts, introductory textbooks, and current scholarly monographs. But with all these you need to find ways to keep your mind actively engaged.
- For one thing you need to stay awake, in conversation with the author.
- And for another you need to be aware of what you have really digested and what will need another look later.
Take Notes While You Read
I have three approaches to suggest. Try them out. Adapt them. Use whatever works for you. You probably wish I’d suggested this in September. Oh well. There is another semester coming. And it is hard to apply advice until you know you face the problem.
Method One: Clean and Simple
My good friend Joe Small, with whom I taught a cohort of Doctor of Ministry students, recommends a simple kind of symbol system to make notes on the go. As you read, in the margins you leave the following trail of breadcrumbs. (Only, of course, if you own the book. Don’t do this in the library copy.)
- “!” indicates something that strikes you as surprising or insightful.
- “X” indicates a point with which you disagree.
- “?” indicates something you don’t understand, find confusing, or otherwise needs another look.
All these marks are useful. They give you some places to study further before class.
And they make great things to bring up as initial observations or questions in seminar discussions.
Method Two: Conversational and Engaged
My own strategy for marginal notes is a little more expansive.
On the one hand I learn best from a book if I think of myself in conversation with the author. So I’ll write out a sentence or a few phrases of where a passage leads me.
- Sometimes I voice my affirmation or disagreement.
- Sometimes I cross reference another work.
- Sometimes I ask the writer a question.
- Sometimes I riff on an expansion of an idea.
- Very occasionally I’ll draw a picture — though not as well as Holbein.
On the other hand I’m often trying to track a key word or idea. I’ll write that word in the margin whenever it appears so I can track back to all the references.
On the other hand (what? three hands?) I’m often looking for structure. Many authors, even influential figures like Augustine, Barth, and Calvin (the ABCs of theology?) don’t make their outline or structure clear enough to be helpful.
- I mark out beginnings of sections.
- I underline the phrases that telegraph subheadings (“first… second… third…” or “one the one hand… on the other hand” etc.)
- Then I can take in the big picture more easily.
And hey, if you become really famous somebody may write a dissertation on your marginalia some day.
Method Three: Keeping a Record
If you want to really think ahead and learn in depth, follow the model I heard about only too late. One friend in grad school made one page of notes on every book and article he read.
Then he organized these notes so that he could find them again — whether by person or topic I don’t know. You’ll have to think about that for yourself.
If you need to study the topic, or write a paper on it, those notes will be solid gold.
But even if you never look at them again, just writing them will cause you to learn and remember the book’s contents much better than if you just read with your eyes, and stick the book back on the shelf.
I’d love to send you a free copy of my new eBook on quirky and surprising saints. It’s called Role Models for Discipleship.
Click the button and I’ll send it along.