Tips for understanding difficult material

This semester has been challenging for me in many ways but mainly in terms of my coursework and readings. The level of comprehension is one step further than what I have been attuned to in the past, both in my Bachelors and Masters degree. The two courses I am currently taking are Ethical Foundations and Political Economy. This means that I am reading authors like Marx, Smith, Richardo, Hegel, de Beauvoir, Benhabib, Aristotle, Kant, Levinas … and the list goes on.

For those of you who have read one or more of these authors before, you know it’s no walk in the park.  Especially when it’s the first time you are trying to read them.

A lot of the discussions to these authors (in my head of course) go something like this “do you even know how to write, why the hell are using these big words, who are you trying to impress, can you please just write in plain language?”

My professor shared this comic after the week we read Hegel and I think its a good laugh…


The idea for this blog post started when I went to see my supervisor, Dr. Susan Braedley and I mentioned that I was struggling to get through some of my readings. I told her, I want to know it all (and now) but I barely have enough time to even read it – let alone understand it. She asked me a simple question:

“How do you read an article”?

It made me reflect on the typical process I move through when reading an article. So before I get into the tips, take a minute to think about how you read an article.

Looking at this process will allow you to reflect on what is actually working and what is not. Quite often we get stuck in the same routine doing the same thing, even if it isn’t helping us. My supervisor then shared with me some of the following tips (some I added on my own) and she mentioned that she received some of these tips from Dr. Meg Luxton. I wanted to give them both credit here as these tips have truly helped me in my understanding of difficult concepts and literature this semester.

So, this post is mainly for my friends in the social sciences and humanities, who are similarly struggling to comprehend some of the difficult articles and material.

TIP #1: Develop a brief understanding

In order to situate yourself within the context, review the abstract as well as the headings in the entire article. This will give you a bird’s eye view of the paper and you will then know what to expect.

If the article is extremely long and you know you won’t be able to get it all done by your class on Thursday, try breaking it into the important chunks within the articles and/or read the first few and last few sentences of paragraphs.

TIP #2: Ask yourself important questions:
  • What is the author’s main argument (thesis)
  • What did the author find (if anything)
  • What proof or evidence does this author have to support their main argument?
  • Who is the author engaged with (other authors – critiquing or defending)
  • How does the author construct their argument (what is their method)
  • What year was this article written?
TIP #3: Skip difficult words or jargon

Some of you may not agree with this tip – you might be thinking but some important information will be missed if you skip a difficult word that you don’t understand. If the word you don’t understand is an important part of the article, then, of course, that is not what I am suggesting here. The point is, don’t get too bogged down by words you don’t understand within the articles because if you try and do that on top of understanding your article, you may be at it all night.


PRO TIP: Mark these words with a highlighter or circle them in red for you to come back to at a later date to understand.



TIP #4: Always be thinking about your own research interests

The most important tip here is to always relate the concepts in an article to your own thesis. If it isn’t exactly meshing, don’t spend as much time on it as you would that something that does align. And if it does align well, ask these questions;

  • What concepts can you pull out to feed your work?
  • What other authors were mentioned or are in the reference list that you can further research at a later date, who are also writing on this topic?
TIP #5: Don’t be so hard on yourself

At the end of the day, don’t beat yourself up for not being able to understand a difficult or challenging article. Some of these authors have been working on the concepts for decades, so don’t try and compete. You are not going to fully grasp it or understand it the first time around, but that’s not the main goal when you first read an article. Remember that you WILL eventually understand it. It will take time and patience, and longer than you hoped – but you will get there. So get lost in the confusion, ask good questions for clarification to your professors, classmates, and supervisor – be brave and enjoy the learning.

As always, I would love to hear from you – how do you get through challenging material?

Until next time,

Christine xo




P.S Don’t forget to use #ScholarCulture #ScholarSquad #ScholarSunday to keep me updated on your experiences as grad students.

P.P.S Applying to grad school for the 2018/19 school year? Check out this FREE eBook on 5 steps to a successful grad school application. Are you in grad school and struggling to find easy lunches to bring to campus? Check out three FREE recipes and full nutritional information here.

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