Three-pass reading and concept mapping of scientific papers and other learning material

Rasmus Ursem
8 min readDec 30, 2022

An effective method for boosting your reading efficiency and learning from scientific papers and other knowledge heavy texts.

Ready to start the reading process (author’s creation)

As a knowledge worker, you are often facing the need for reading rather large numbers of scientific papers. I am a data scientist and in relation to projects at work, I often find myself trawling the web for scientific papers touching the topics we are working on. Typically, the first round unveils 15–20 papers that are somehow related to the project. Maybe one or two if these are worth a deep investigation and perhaps a reimplementation of the method. At some point, I started to feel that some of my reading was wasted time — not 100% wasted but maybe 70–80% or so.

I realized I needed a more efficient process for reading, which was my motivation for developing the three-pass reading and concept mapping method. I read a lot of scientific papers, but I would say the method works on other short texts as well.

Preparations for reading

I print the paper and the template below to support the reading. The template ensures that I read papers in the same way and log insights and TODOs during the reading process. My template is of course colored by my professional field (data science) and you will most likely have to adapt this to your own reading. Nevertheless, it should give you a general idea of how to formalize your reading.
Download the template: PDF

Reading template — print and fold

Pass 1 — concept discovery and knowledge matching

In the first pass, the goal is to determine if the paper is worth more time. I typically read the title, the abstract, parts of the introduction, the headlines, bullet point lists, the figures, and parts of the conclusion.

While reading and skimming, I highlight concepts, note down if there are key figures explaining the ideas, and determine how the paper extends my existing knowledge. In this, I draw on concept maps from my previous reading or make a list of new maps to…

Rasmus Ursem

Computer & data scientist, writer, thinker, photographer, and generally curious about life and the wet matter between our ears — in short, I’m a poly-geek :-)