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Graduate Education Research

How do I make sure I'm understanding the source well enough to use it in my paper?

Reading and understanding academic sources can be one of the most challenging parts of the research process. Even if you're reading popular or general sources, close reading requires critical thinking and analysis. This is even more challenging when you are reading in a second language!

When you're reading, you'll want to try to understand the source on multiple levels.

  1. Understanding what individual words and sentences mean.
  2. Understanding what argument and the evidence presented.
  3. Understanding the context, audience, scope, and purpose.


This can be challenging, especially if you're trying to work on all three levels at once.

Ideally, you'll read a source three times, focusing on each element respectively in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd read-throughs.  This takes time, so it is best to start your research early. 

Review the Understanding Your Source guide for more information on how to master the three levels of understanding.

Helpful Tools

The Research Matrix: Use this tool to analyze, summarize, and easily see the connections between your sources as you work on your literature review. (A downloadable Research Matrix Template is available below)

A Research Matrix is a table with columns labeled "Themes" and rows labeled "Sources
Empty Cell Theme 1 Theme 2
Source 1 1-2 sentence summary 1-2 sentence summary
Source 2 N/A 1-2 sentence summary
Source 3 1-2 sentence summary N/A

Reading Notes: Use this tool to take in-depth notes on each of your sources, including the citation information, main points, quotes with page numbers, and reflection on what you learned, what new questions this source brought up, and how it relates to your overall topic. Taking good notes as you read will make the process of organizing your thoughts and writing your paper so much easier!  (A downloadable Reading Notes Template is available below.