Master Your Seminary’s Required Reading in Half the Time (or Less)

Seminary requires a massive amount of reading. Often the workload for even a single course can go over a thousand pages. Multiply that by four or five, and it becomes daunting, especially if you’re not a natural reader. The numbers of people who struggle with reading seems to be growing, and I’m sure that’s the case in seminary, also.

So, as you’re assembling your massive stack of books for the coming semester, I want to share an approach to reading that should save you some time and help you learn better.

Never read a book from cover to cover (unless you really want to).

The Pareto Principle applies here as elsewhere: 80% of the value of a book can be found in 20% of its pages. That means that reading most of the book will be a low-value use of your time, your professor’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding. So unless, you really like the book, don’t read any book from cover to cover. Try this instead:

The Basic Approach

(courtesy of Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle, p. 25)

Read the introduction and opening chapter or two, to get the general thesis of the book.
Then skip to the end, and survey the author’s conclusions. Once you have a feel for the main theme, go back to the table of contents, and look for where the most valuable content should be. Often, an author takes a few chapters to establish background for his main point—these chapters can be skimmed or even skipped entirely. Look for what appear to be the most relevant chapters, and give your attention there.

To read a chapter: read the opening paragraph or two, then the closing paragraph or two. Then scan through the headings, if the book has them. (If the book has no headings, use the opening sentence of paragraphs instead.) You can dip in and read the full text anywhere that the content seems rich or relevant to you. Feel free to skip around if you want.

(Incidentally, this is why I use headings and bullet lists in posts at SSG: to help you scan for and quickly find the material that will be most useful to you.)

Read with a pencil.

Reading, done well, is not a passive activity. It should be interactive. You should be thinking actively about the content, and challenging and asking questions of the author as you go.

To do this, read with a pencil (or pen, highlighter, etc). Underline key phrases and main points as you go. If question occurs to you, write it in the margins. Recognize an idea from another class or book? Make a note of it. This will help you when you come back to review later.

Why does this work? Underlining requires you to think about the material and make a definite choice about what is most significant. Writing the margin forces you to express that vague objection to the author’s idea in specific words. Writing encourages clarity and specificity.

Now some people have a deep reverence toward books, and feel that writing in them is a sacrilege. Get over it. Those books are not there for you to worship and preserve; they are there to help you learn. You’re a student, not a librarian. (Aside: you’d better be writing in your Bible, too, by the way.)

Discuss the reading with other students.

Again, this is about the importance of interacting with the material. Discussing what you’ve (mostly) read with other readers will help confirm and enrich your grasp of the material. You might even compare your understanding of the reading with others who slogged through the whole thing, and see how much (if anything) you’re missing.


Since you’re not slogging through the entire text, you can use some of the time you save to come back to the text, and re-read. This will help when reviewing for exams. Or if you’re not satisfied that you’ve gotten everything you need, then you can come back to sections that you skimmed earlier and read more closely.

Don’t be cheap.

I’d like to anticipate two complaints about this approach to reading:

“I paid a month’s salary for these books! I’m reading all of them! I have to get my money’s worth!”
That’s fine. Read all of them. But remember why you bought these books: to serve you and help you learn. If you insist on reading every word, you may find that you become a servant to your books, rather than the other way around.

“If I write in my books, I won’t get as much for them when I sell them back.”
Again, suit yourself. But is the extra three dollars you’ll get at resale really worth it? If you’re not convinced, then experiment: try writing in just a couple of your textbooks, and see if it helps you. Then get the real figures on how much money you’d save at resale, compare to how writing in the book helped your learning, and ask yourself if the “savings” is really worth it.

Bonus: Learn to speed read. This free manifesto has a basic introduction to key speed reading concepts. Download the .pdf and look at page 13.

Not convinced? Try this approach with just one of your classes, and see if it helps you.

15 Replies to “Master Your Seminary’s Required Reading in Half the Time (or Less)”

  1. Thanks for the advice… I actually have to go to the library this week to read 700 pages from my summer intensive. The million dollar question though is how do you then answer the question at the end of the semester (typically part of your grade) “I have read with reasonable care all the assigned readings. Yes or No.” (Or the derivative) “What percentage of the assigned reading did you do?”

    If I follow the 80/20 then I’d have to answer the first question by giving myself a VERY generous definition of “reasonable” and if I answer the second one truthfully then I have to be generous with something like 50%…


  2. Interesting question. I don’t recall being required to account for assigned readings in this way when I was at seminary.

    If I understand “reasonable care” to mean that I read the book in such a way as to understand its content, then I think I could answer yes with integrity. I daresay that if you gave a comprehension test to someone who used this method and compared the results to those who slogged through the entire thing, you’d get comparable results.

    If you know the question is coming, then perhaps a candid conversation with your professor ahead of time is the way to take the high road.

  3. Ryan, I would say that the principles above apply to those books for which you AREN’T asked to sign off– in other words, if you have been literally assigned the whole book to read, you ought to, in good faith and conscience, read the whole book or report otherwise.

    When I was in seminary, there were always the professors who required us to sign off on certain books (frequently their own!). But the same guys would NOT require that of every book– and there were also classes where the assignment was, instead of a simple percentage report, to read and write a reflection on the book (which didn’t include a statement of percentage or what-have-you). In short, there were a few every semester I HAD to read all the way through; there were also a few that I WANTED to read all the way through, and others that I was able to skim or read in a manner like unto what is described above.

  4. Helpful advice. But, like Ryan, I’m usually asked on the final exam to indicate a percentage of completed reading. Some profs even specify “carefully” read. However, certainly useful for books we aren’t expected to read 100%.

    Keep up the good work on this blog!

  5. This is curious to me. The way I was always asked to account for my required readings was in papers and on tests… not by answering one blanket question at the end of the semester.

    I’m not a seminary prof, obviously, but this doesn’t seem to me like the strongest approach educationally.

  6. As a prof, let me add one equation to the discussion (which by the way, I also teach a similar method of “gutting a book”): does the average student know enough about the topic in question to make an adequate determination as to what is worth reading in a book? Are we running the risk of actually short circuiting the learning process by encouraging the unitiated to determine what is of most value when they have no mental canon by which they might measure the new material?

    The shortest distance between points A and Z often means that everything in between also gets shorted. This is the classical catch-22 writ large.

  7. Excellent point. I don’t deny that there are things lost when you read less than every page of the book. I would hope that lectures and intelligent discussion with peers might provide some direction to the uninitiated.

    There is of course a continuum from reading the entire book on one hand, to lightly skimming it on the other. A student can place himself anywhere on that continuum he thinks is appropriate to his understanding of the material and the demands on his time.

    Please remember, everyone, that my suggestions about reading are not about the best ways to learn, but about how to manage time. The goal is to reclaim precious time for the most important things with minimal loss of value. If you have a time surplus, these suggestions need not apply.

  8. Great thoughts and comments here. As a seminary student, I have had to learn how to moderately speed read. I think that you can actually read 100% of a book, without it taking 2 painstaking weeks of “soaking” in every word. Some books lend themselves to this more than others, of course. Those links above are actually pretty helpful for this. I have been exposed to some other, but similar thoughts.

    And yes, I think it is a pedagogical error to equate percentage read with learning. The best assignments I have had are when the professor (who does make us sign off on percentages, unfortunately) gives us “Take Home” “True or False” quizes on the readings. This makes sure that we have read in order to understand what the author was communicating, not just what we took away from it. I have found this to be much more beneficial then the “percentage read” or “reflection paper” approach.

  9. Great, great, great post and website. I’m gearing up for my last three classes of seminary, but wish I had thought more about the kind of content your website has a long, long time ago. Hopefully, I’ll write a similar post on what I’ve learned in seminary, and seminary reading.

    Thanks again,


  10. My only question is this, why is the reading requirement so significantly high if the prov knows that the students are not going to read every word? It seems that the reading requirements are out of touch with reality. The less for more principle would seem to apply to the topic. However, since the requirement is 1 to 2 thousand pages a class and it doesn’t change, then anyone going to seminary better read this article!

  11. I can’t think of a single class in my M.A. or M.Div. programs (both at SBTS in Louisville, KY) which hasn’t required signing a document stating that I have carefully (or closely) read ____ pages of the required ____ number of pages. Perhaps it depends on the degree program as well?

    Of course, I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read in seminary that I didn’t want to read closely…but my wife always tells me that I’m a nerd.

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