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PHYSICS: Read & Comprehend

How to Read & Understand Physics Texts

What to expect and how to prepare

While science textbooks and popular science texts are written for non-experts, scientific literature as a whole is written by experts for experts. In fact, experts in one subfield of physics will find it challenging to read and understand literature in another physics subfield. Texts are dense with information, and expect to spend hours reading through a small section of text. Read actively to increase your comprehension. Ask questions of the text before, during, and after you've read the text; draw connections between what you're learning and what you've already learned. It will also help to know what kind of text you are reading.

Gather your lab (reading) equipment

  • Reference material (e.g. dictionary, encyclopedia, desk reference, handbook, textbook, etc.)
  • pen & paper to take copious notes

Read strategically

Rather than reading from beginning to end, recognize and use standard conventions of science articles to maximize your comprehension, reading in this order:

  1. Abstract -- learn the researcher's purpose (the why), methods (the how), results (the what), and conclusion (the so what)
  2. Discussion/Analysis/Conclusion -- learn the impact of this research (questions raised, questions answered)
  3. Introduction -- learn what is known about the topic (hence the citations to related research), what is not known, and what research questions are tackled in the text
  4. Results -- learn what happened as a result of the research conducted
  5. Procedure/Methodology -- learn how the research was conducted to help you evaluate its validity and reliability

Ask questions and provide explanations

To aid comprehension, ask professors and peers questions about the text, but also use those opportunities to explain your current understanding of the content.

How to Read a Scientific Article

Follow this quick tutorial to learn

  • why scientific articles are valuable and specifically how they differ from other types of information sources
  • how to be strategic in the way you read these articles in order to increase your comprehension
  • how scientific articles are split up into different sections and explains the kinds of information provided by each section

How to Read a Scientific Paper