Philosophy needs to be re-read. Unlike most fiction and some nonfiction, philosophy needs to be read slowly and deliberately. Do not rush through it – think about issues as they are raised, going back and forth if necessary. And if you are burning out, take a break. You will find that a text can seem quite different the second time through.
Margin Writing (or glossing) is better than highlighting/underlining. It takes time and slows things down (I read about 15 pages an hour) but it forces you to constantly ask yourself: What did I just read? Did that make sense? Summing up a paragraph in the margins makes studying much easier because you already have the bullet points of a crib sheet written. Highlighting, on the other hand, often turns into a cheap substitute for careful concentration; how many books have you seen with entire pages highlighted? Were those readers grasping the main points? Probably not.
Note Problem Passages (e.g., with a ? or Q) as you read. These are good points for discussion in class (where we can clarify or debate them). It is so easy to let a question go and move ahead but that only makes studying later more difficult. Copy out important points and questions you have onto a separate sheet of paper, in other words, organize as you go along.
Read philosophy in a different order than fiction. Often a philosophical work can be made easier to understand if you read the contents, introduction (philosopher’s, editor’s, or both) and conclusion first. In other words, size it up. This frames for you what the writer is trying to do. Skimming the first sentence of each paragraph can also help. Then, read the assignment from beginning to end (do not write as you read the intro/conclusion – just get the gist).
Sum up what you have read in a single paragraph. Take 5 – 10 minutes to write this up right after you are done reading (this serves a similar function as margin writing, but is cumulative.)
Discuss Philosophy with classmates. More than almost any other subject, philosophy must be discussed and debated to be clearly understood. Get together to ask each other questions, review arguments, compare lecture notes, etc. Read each other’s papers before handing them in.
Read the material before lecture. A good lecture does not just regurgitate what was in the reading. It gives some description but also moves ahead to interpretation and analysis of the issues in the reading. Often students complain that a professor was “off on a tangent”; sometimes they are right, but often they have not done the reading first (so how could they even know what a tangent was?)
Bring questions about the reading to class. Keep them in mind as you listen; if they are not answered, bring them up. Philosophy is all about questions.
Do not try to write everything down. Real listening takes a lot of concentration. Transcribing a lecture will take too much attention away from your ability to understand the meaning of what is said. (Do not lose the forest for the trees.) Focus on the larger themes being covered; make notes about these themes and about questions that you have. These are the building blocks of understanding much more than a hastily-made transcription.
Compare your lecture notes with other classmates; this helps eliminate gaps and clarity the points made by the professor. Check them with me (if you like) during office hours.
In addition to my tips for understanding, you might find these two web sites helpful.