Reading Textbooks Effectively

Are you avoiding your textbook reading assignments because you find it difficult to get through them?  Are you reading the same paragraph in an assignment over and over and still not getting what it says?  Are you using your reading assignments as a surefire cure for insomnia?  If you answered yes to any of these questions the following hints might help you make better use of the investment you made when you bought your books.

Why read in the first place?

Most professors require a textbook and expect that you will keep up with assignments without being reminded.  There is a limit to how much class time can be devoted to the specific terms, concepts, and ideas covered in a course.  The textbook provides added background, depth and illustrations/examples to the course and is supposed to contribute to your overall learning experience.  It's an important resource and typically helps students move beyond an initial introduction of the ideas that the professor does in class to a fuller understanding.  Keeping up with the pace of lectures, contributing meaningfully to discussions, developing thoughtful and thorough answers on assignments or exam questions can depend on the added information available in the text materials. 

How to make the most of what the textbook offers.

  1. At the start of the semester, right after you buy the book - really look it over.  Thumb through the entire thing.  Check for "hidden treasures" like:  an appendix that has a collection of key diagrams or charts; an answer key for all the chapter questions; a preface that tells you specifically how to use the book.  Look to see how the topics are arranged and compare it to the course outline you received from the professor.
  2. When you tackle your first assignment resist the urge to just open the book and plunge in.  Look for the extra features that have been included to help you break things down.  Chapter objectives give you a good picture of the information you should be looking for as you read.  The headings and subheadings tell you how the topic is divided and where you will be able to find that key information.  Margin notes, diagrams, charts, maps and graphics are all there to give you some extra insight into the main text.  Boldface print, italics and obvious lists are good flags for the vitals you don't want to miss.  Study questions and sample problems give you a way to check and see if you are "getting it."  Be sure you take time to check the roadmap that all of these helps provide before you start to read.  Otherwise it is really easy to get lost along the way and end up wasting a lot of time spinning your wheels!
  3. Don't overload.  Be realistic about how much you can actually digest at one sitting.  If you find yourself reading the same thing over and over or it you get to the end of a paragraph and have no clue what you just read your brain is definitely sending you a message.  It's saying "I can't do this any more" or maybe it's trying to tell you "I can't do this the way you are wanting me to….."  It's never a good idea to tackle more than ten pages at a time and if you really have concentration issues even that much may be more than you can do at one sitting.  The key is not to come away empty handed - read in smaller chunks to improve your understanding.
  4. For some additional hints on capturing key information while you read check Highlighting Textbooks.