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Concentrate When Studying and Reading

Information from a handout by Jane L. McGrath

Student needing help


Students frequently complain that it is too hard to concentrate when studying or reading textbook assignments. How often do you hear yourself say, "I can’t concentrate!"

But is this true? Isn’t the problem that we really find it harder to pay attention because we don’t like to read our texts as much as the latest music or movie review, fashion magazine, or the sports page?

Here are some strategies that many students have found helpful to overcome this problem.


What it means to study!


Studying is the process that is used to decide what to learn and what to remember and recall.—James F. Shepherd

Here is what the process looks like. If you follow these steps, your concentration and memory will improve!

diagram of study process

Diagram used with permission © Lucy MacDonald


What is reading, anyway?


You may think this is a silly question, but how did you answer it?

Did you think of reading as your eyes moving across a page and words jumping into your head?

Or did you consider that reading is actually a conversation between you and the author? If you think of reading as the way an author talks to you, it is easier to see what you can do to stay interested and find ways to improve your concentration.

When reading, because the author communicates to you through the words on the page, the conversation is from the author to you. If you had that kind of discussion with your family or friend, would you just not say anything when others were talking to you?

Or would you join in, offer your opinions, ask questions when you didn’t understand what they meant, or even argue? Most of us would want to actively participate in what was being talked about.

This active participation is the same key to improving your concentration when reading.


How do I get actively involved when reading? 


Woman studying

There are many strategies you can use to become an active reader. The more techniques you use, the easier it will be to stay focused on your reading.



Ask Yourself Questions

The key to maintaining focus is to stop periodically and ask yourself questions.

Besides improving your concentration, you will also determine how well you have understood what you have read, find the areas you don’t understand yet, connect information to what you already know and improve memory, and anticipate possible test questions.

You will also have questions to ask in class, on the discussion board, or when you talk with your professor.

Man studyingSo what do you ask? Here are some examples:

  • How does this relate to what I already know?
  • If this is true, what else follows?
  • What else could these facts mean?
  • What assumptions are being made
  • What is the evidence for this?
  • Can I think of a good example of this?
  • What are the unique points of this?

Another way to ask questions is to get a study buddy, someone with whom you can go over the assigned material, discuss lecture notes, and prepare for tests. This strategy has proven more successful than studying alone simply because you talk out loud about what you know. When confused, the two of you search for and vocalize answers.


Read Bold Headings

Another technique is to read the bold headings in the chapter and turn those into questions. Here’s an example using a heading from a sociology textbook.

India: A Different Kind of Poverty

  • Do I know where India is located? Can I easily find it on a map?

  • Why is poverty in India different? Different from what? Where?

  • What measures were used to determine the levels of poverty in India?

  • How would I feel if I were poor and lived in India? How would I be treated?


Read the Ideas

Jogging bear


We often become confused or discouraged when we focus on the words on the page instead of the ideas.

If we stop and look up all the words we don’t know in the dictionary, we forget what we are reading about and have to start all over.

Instead, read the entire paragraph or section or page without stopping. When you keep reading, the ideas will become more important than the words and understanding is easier. You can always go back, circle and look up the words you aren’t sure of—they aren’t going anywhere!

Strategy: Once you have read a paragraph or page or section, try the following strategy.

  • Stop and close your book.

  • Think about the information you have read and what you remember.

  • Tell yourself out loud what you know. If you can’t say it, you haven’t learned it. But don’t get upset or start negative messages to yourself. Simply open the book, reread the same paragraph or page or section, then try this again.

  • If you find you have to reread numerous times before you can remember most of the information, break the information up into smaller sections, such as a paragraph instead of a page, a few sentences instead of a paragraph.

  • Do what works for you!





Find ways to do something! In order to read, your brain has to become involved. Here are some things to do to help this happen.

  • Use a pencil mark to check off each paragraph that you completely understand. If you start to get lost in the reading, you will know exactly where: just after the last check.
  • If a section is too difficult for you, try reading it out loud. If you see it and hear it you will understand and remember the information better and faster.
  • Try to link new information with the information you already know.
  • Ask yourself, "How do I already know this?" You can also ask yourself questions such as those listed above. Active linking creates powerful memories.
  • Take a few seconds to write down key words and concepts. Draw pictures or diagrams.
  • If you "read, ‘rite, and recite (RRR), you’ve got a better chance of retaining crucial information. Seeing, doing, and hearing is the best formula to increase concentration and memory.
  • After taking a short break from studying and before you begin again, take a few minutes to review the information you have just learned. This will give you a sense of progress and motivate you to continue. It will also tell you which areas you need to review before you start studying new information. Your confidence will increase, and you will feel better prepared when it’s time for your exam.
  • When you don't understand concepts or you have trouble applying what you have learned to problems or exercises, get help immediately. If you don't ask, your instructor assumes you have learned the material.
  • Visit your instructor during an office hour. Have questions prepared so you use this time effectively.
  • Contact your study buddy.
  • Set up an appointment with a tutor.


Web Resources on Study Skills and Concentration 

computer, notebook, books


Here are some resources to help you become more effective in your studies.

Assess Study Skills and Environment

Study Skills Checklist Find out how effective your present study skills are by taking this quick assessment. (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University)

Study Environment Analysis Complete this short inventory to evaluate your study environment. (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University)

Study Habits Assessment Increase your awareness of the time needed for effective study (Muskingum College)

Assess Your Study Skills Ten questions lead to better study strategies (Study Guides and Strategies)


Improve Concentration

Concentrating and Reading Check this out for some simple, direct, practical information. (Columbia)

Concentration and Your Body Learn how to work with your body to increase concentration. Scroll down (University of Texas at Austin) PDF file

Eliminating Internal & External Distracters, Staying Alert in Class & Staying Alert While Reading (Muskingum College)


Increase Effectiveness of Studying

Study Skills Self-help Information Check out the online study skills workshops and other links! (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University)

INDEX Study System Here's how you can determine what you have really learned versus what you think you have learned. (Study Guides and Strategies)

Strategies for Studying on the Go While this site is for preparation for the Medical College Admissions Test, the three suggestions at the beginning of the video are very helpful. Ignore the last part on commercial note cards unless the MCAT is one of your future goals. (

Create and Study with Flash Cards When you have to memorize information, here's one of the best strategies to use. (Study Guides and Strategies)

A.S.P.I.R.E. a study system (Study Guides and Strategies)

Developing Sound Study Skills for College (Niagara University)

Study Tips You will find information on this site, as well as handouts that you can download. (Dartmouth College)

Everything You Want to Know about Study Skills Refer to this comprehensive academic support site for information related to studying. You'll find just about everything you need right here! (


Go to Avoiding Study Traps

Go to Effective Textbook Reading Skills

Go to Memory Strategies

Go to Online Reading Strategies


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Information used with permission of the author. © Jane L. McGrath

This site was created and is maintained by Barbara J. Speidel, SWC Academic Success Center Coordinator. @ Barbara J. Speidel

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