Q: How Is Reading Science Books Different from Reading Other Kinds of Books?

Article excerpt

A: One short answer to this question is that, for many people, there is no difference. My wife and I make a good case study for different ways of reading books. Being the nerd I am, I try to analyze such everyday things as different reading speeds and look for a reason. First, here's the difference between our reading styles: My wife can read a novel in about half the time it takes me to read the same novel. Within a year's time, she can pick up the same novel and read it a second time. Me, I read novels once and look at reading one a second time as a tedious task.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Explaining the difference in our reading speeds is pretty simple. I've spent a good deal of time reading science books. My wife's experience is primarily in history and political science reading. A good history book tells a story, much like a good novel. In reading those stories, one is able to read through the text relatively quickly and still get the main points. Science reading is a much slower process. You read science texts to understand specific concepts, and usually few of the words on a page are wasted; just about every word can be significant for understanding the concept at hand. Suffice it to say that my wife has a difficult time with science texts, while I'm so slow I never get through history texts.

The Research Says So

Backing up this view of science reading is a fair amount of psychological research. For example, there are lots of studies that compare experts (those who have studied or even taught a subject for a long period of time) and novices (those new to a subject) in many areas. One of the earliest such studies was done in chess (Chase and Simon 1973). The researchers found that experts organized their knowledge of chess in a fundamentally different way from how novices looked at the game. The experts saw patterns the novices didn't see and organized their knowledge in "chunks"--large collections of chess-piece positions and possible moves arising from those positions. Similar studies in science problem solving reveal that experts have a rich connection of science concepts and a knowledge of the important features of problems, while novices tend to focus on the surface features of a problem that are often unimportant when considering how to solve those problems (Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser 1981).

For example, it's common for novices to classify problems as a "spring problem," an "elevator problem," or a "pulley problem." Experts, on the other hand, classify problems according to the major principals--Newton's second law, conservation of energy, conservation of momentum--one uses to solve the problems. So, novices often see details but not the big picture while experts see the big picture and use the details as necessary.

Reading Like an Expert

Well, how do you become an expert and see the big picture? You have to understand the important concepts, know all of the subconcepts that are related to the important concepts, and keep everything in the proper hierarchy. Surprise, surprise; this takes time! To develop this richly connected understanding of concepts, you need to read explanations slowly, reflecting on what you have read and how it fits into what you already know. Personally, I can easily spend an hour ruminating over a page or two of reading that covers a particularly difficult science concept. …