Every January my alma mater, a small liberal arts college, holds the Great Midwest Trivia Contest—a contest for answering questions that are extremely trivial, or unimportant. If it’s common knowledge, it’s not trivial. If the answer is important in any way, it’s not trivial. The Trivia Masters who run the contest take pride in selecting questions that are so unimportant that no one can answer them—so trivial that, in truth, no one really cares about the answer.
When reading for information, however, students must learn to use an approach that’s the opposite of the Trivia Masters’ method! Instead of seeking the trivial or insignificant details, they need to read with the intention of finding facts that are relevant to a specific topic.
I used this approach last summer, when I took a graduate class on ancient Rome. Every time I picked up my textbook, I set a purpose for reading by asking myself, What is the topic of this chapter? What do I need to know in order to understand it? I wasn’t seeking trivial details; I was seeking important information, information that was key to unlocking the meaning of the material I was reading.
Structure and organization of texts help readers understand what’s most important by grouping related information together. Headings, subheadings, chapter titles, highlighted vocabulary—all of these features guide readers to find and remember the most important information. For example, I read a chapter titled “Roads.” Paging through the chapter, I saw a map, a subheading called ...