This semester, I’m reading about 5,000 pages. If you’re in seminary, or considering it, so will you! From what I’ve learned so far–both in my intensive reading program and undergrad and in my seminary classes–here are four essential hacks for maximizing your learning in the most efficient time possible.
1. Distinguish between reading books and reference books
Two of the main kinds of books you’ll encounter in seminary are reading books and reference books. Reading books have a linear argument or tell a story. These ones, you have to read in their entirety to understand well–that’s how they’re written! Unfortunately, there’s no hack here for those. The good news, though, is that some books are not for reading, but for referencing (even though your professors will make you read them!). These books will have lengthy entries on the historical background of some Old Testament culture, explain some obscure archaeological finding, or list data for sociological trends. To make this knowledge useful, you’d have to work long and hard to store it away in your brain. So don’t. In a pinch, I recommend skimming it, outlining it, and making sure you know where the information is so that you can find it when you need it.
2. Collect quotes topically
This next point is like the first. You ought to collect quotes and notes. These are gems for papers, conversations, or even future sermons! Because I’m writing my thesis on a theology of friendship, I’ve already started a file with about 50 solid quotes on friendship from classic philosophers and church fathers. The point is, when I need them, I’ll have tons of material to choose from, readily accessible.
3. Outline the argument inside the cover
You’ll read so many books that you’ll have almost no chance of recalling what each of them was about. I recommend tearing out a piece of notebook paper and outlining the progression of the argument as you read it. By the time you’re done, you should know what the author said as well as how they got there. Twenty years from now, you can pick that book up off the shelf and summarize the whole thing in about one paragraph. You may even have that paragraph written out word-for-word!
4. Read to the assignment
If you know you have papers due on certain books, know which questions your papers will raise before you start reading. It’s the same principle used in research writing: Identify your questions and then pull quotes and take notes on areas that are going to be relevant to your next assignment. That will help you identify what your professor finds important in the book, and it will keep you from having to re-skim it once it’s paper-writing time! Using this trick, I finished all the reading and writing for my church history course weeks ahead of schedule.
By Jack Franicevich Jack is an MDiv student at Denver Seminary. His interests range from the doctrine of the church, theologies of friendship and work, preaching, hymn-writing, and grassroots ecumenism to competitive table tennis, cooking for large groups, classical literature, and organizational development.