Get The Most From Your Textbook

by Julia Nielsen

1. Overview

The WAY you read your textbook determines, to a large extent, what you get out of it. Many students read textbooks as they read for pleasure - from beginning to end, with no particular focus or expectation. Though reading textbooks can be enjoyable, you primarily expect to gain knowledge, and to do that you must focus your reading. With practice, your studying will be more efficient and more effective; there will be less wasted time, and you should retain more of what you've read. You are re-learning a skill, so reading this way may take longer at first.

While reading textbooks, forget two things you learned:

1. read from the beginning to the end.

For pleasure reading, beginning to end is good; for studying, it is not. In pleasure reading, following the author's thread is much of the enchantment. In knowledge reading, you need a clear notion of where you are going, why, and by what means.

2. don't write in books.

For borrowed books not marking in them is good, even commendable; for textbooks it is not. Your textbooks are knowledge tools - use them productively. This means margin notes and judicious highlighting or underlining.

This synthesis of experience and established materials explains how to read your textbook for maximum benefit. You can use the same method for the entire textbook, for chapters within it, and for journal articles.

The method is set out in individual steps, though you will do some of these things simultaneously; for instance, you may write notes in the margins or highlight as you read, especially the second and third time through.

The techniques within each category have been successful for many students for many years. However, not everyone will need or want all of them. This is YOUR study tool, so try the different techniques, keep what you like and discard the rest or put them in to a separate file 'just in case'.

2. Survey the Textbook

Skim the book to get an idea of what it's about, who wrote it, and why. This step will take 10 to 20 minutes, no more. Consider the

  • Title
  • Table of Contents including subheadings. Note the ways it is organized as well as the topics covered.
  • Introduction/Preface
  • Author's purpose, background/discipline, affiliation?

3. Survey the Chapter

Use the same process with chapters or units within your textbook; you want to get a general idea what you will be reading and learning. Think about what you already know about this or a similar topic. This helps build a context for the new information, and you are more likely to remember contextual rather than scattered, unrelated information. Consider the

  • Title
  • Subheadings, bolded or underlined text
  • Ways it is organized. Making an outline from this can be useful. If you leave enough space, it can serve as your structure for taking notes from the text.
  • Introduction/preface, if any
  • Visual aids such as pictures and their captions, charts/graphs/tables.
  • Also note any errors.

4. Question Continually

While you survey, read, reflect and review. Though you will always be looking for What your reading is about, you will ask Who, When, Where, Why and How when necessary. You won't need to ask all these questions for all reading material.

  • What is this about? Is it a concept, an event, a theory..?
  • Who is involved? Who did this, what affected by it, changed it, challenged it..?
  • When did this happen, was it postulated, will it happen..?
  • Why did it happen, was it postulated, will it happen..?
  • Where did it happen, was it postulated, will it happen..?
  • How did this happen, will it happen, did they do it..?

5. Read

Read the chapter or unit, bearing in mind what you've learned from your survey. Read your chapter in this order.

  • Title
  • Summary/conclusion/discussion. In most textbook chapters some of the summary is given at the end, though in journal articles it is at the beginning and is called an abstract. In any case, the summary (or abstract) is the essence of the chapter, so read it first AND last. In reading it before you read the chapter, you get an overview of the chapter and the main points within it. It is a powerful tool for understanding and remembering what you read.
  • Cues such as subheadings or differently formatted text - bolded, underlined, or italicized.
  • End of chapter questions, quickly. This gives you a good idea what will be discussed and what is important to remember. Don't be concerned if you can answer only a few or none.
  • Scan the chapter; the first, second and last sentences of each paragraph are generally the most important.
  • Look up and write down unfamiliar terms. Sometimes these are defined in a glossary at the end of the chapter, unit, or textbook.
  • Read the chapter, keeping the questions in mind. Be alert to cue terms like never, always, therefore, all... Don't be concerned about reading more slowly than you are accustomed to; reading for information is a specialized skill.
  • Read aloud sometimes, especially for difficult or complicated passages.

6. Recite

Try different ways to do this, then use the one(s) that work best for YOU. Summarize and paraphrase the chapter. Question yourself aloud about what you just read; answer the What, Who, When, Why, Where, and How components of your earlier survey. The more senses you use in your learning, the more likely you are to understand it and remember it.

7. Write

  • Write notes, comments, and questions in the margins, as you go.
  • Make paraphrased notes from your textbook; keep them in point form. Put the text page numbers in the margin besides each note.
  • Underline or highlight your text, but sparingly.
  • Write down cue words.
  • Write down technical or unfamiliar terms, discipline-specific information such as important formulas or dates.
  • Summarize the chapter in point form.

8. Reflect and question

  • Think about what you have read. Keep in mind the What, Who, When, Where, Why and How of what you have read.
  • Relate what you read to what you already know and to other new things you are learning.

9. Rest/recreate

For every study hour, take 5-10 minutes away from your study area; get some juice, pat the cat, run in place, but get away from your desk for a few minutes.

For every three hours, take a longer break, at least half an hour; take the dog for a walk, have a meal, shoot hoops, repot those plants...

10. Review

Mostly you will do this in solitude. Some students like to supplement that with a study buddy or group.

Discussion with friends and relatives is another way to review; explaining a concept to someone who has not studied it clarifies the concept and makes it more real for you.

Review periodically throughout the term of the course. Do it the day after you read a piece of text, then weekly.

Quickly review the chapter or your notes before reading subsequent chapters.