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How to Get the Most Out of Your Textbook

Here are 6 helpful tips that every student should know about as they study their textbooks.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Textbook

Regardless of whether your textbook is no-cost, low-cost, or a traditional full-price textbook, it won’t benefit you much if you don’t actually read it. Many students struggle with knowing how to get the most out of their textbooks, often merely reading each chapter from beginning to end, as they would with a novel. Some may highlight or underline passages that they feel are important, or take notes as they read, but even these strategies tend to be less effective. Instead, try these evidence-based practices. They may seem like a little more work up front, but they will help you to remember the material better, saving you the work of having to re-learn much of it later.

1. Many chapters begin and/or end with a paragraph or outline that summarizes all of the material contained in the chapter. Begin by reading this section to get an overview of the material. It’s okay if you don’t fully understand everything that is being discussed.

2. Next, look for questions that are also often at the beginning and/or end of textbook chapters. Read through these questions, and try to guess the answers. This may seem like strange advice, but doing your best to think of the answers (even if you guess completely incorrectly), will help to prime your brain to seek out the actual answers as you read, thus helping you to pick up some of the most important material contained in the chapter.

3. After this, flip quickly through the chapter and read each of the section headings. Then, go back to the beginning, and read the first sentence of each paragraph, as well as sentences that contain bolded, italicized, or underlined words or phrases, as these sentences typically contain key points. As you do this, also read through lists, diagrams, graphs, tables,and other images with text.

4. At this stage, it can be very helpful to write out a brief summary of what you understand from the chapter so far (just a few sentences or even key phrases can be effective). The purpose of this step is to help you synthesize what you know so far, not to create notes summarizing the content. Doing this will help you take material you may have passively absorbed and develop it into a deeper understanding. It may be tempting to skip this step, but taking only a minute or two to do this can significantly help you to remember much of what you have learned so far. You should also take another minute or so to write out any major questions that you have about the material. This will be important in the next step.

5. Now, read through the chapter from beginning to end. As you do so, you should specifically look for the answers to the questions from step 2 (provided by the text itself), and the questions from step 4 (written by you). If time is short, you can skim the material, only looking for answers to these questions, but if you have time, making the effort to read through all of the material can help deepen your understanding of it.

6. Lastly, this is when you should make notes, summarizing the material contained in the chapter. To help you strengthen your memory of the material, it is important that you wait to write this summary until after reading (rather than doing it while you read), and that you do it without reviewing the material in the chapter. Do the best you can to remember all of the important points. Then, once you have written this brief summary, go back and quickly review the chapter (simply flipping through the pages should be sufficient) to see what, if anything, you missed. Then add to the summary any material you forgot. This may seem like more effortful than simply taking notes as you go, but it will make you much more likely to remember the material.

Keep in mind that these suggestions may require adaptation depending on the textbook or course content. It’s more important to stick to the principles contained in these steps than it is to try to follow all of the steps in a strict or rigid manner. Nonetheless, following these guidelines should allow you to get much more out of your textbook than simply reading it from beginning to end and highlighting important passages. Additionally, many of these strategies may work well in a pinch, such as when you neglect to read the material before class and only have a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the content. In these situations, it can be helpful to follow the preliminary steps, such as reading any summary paragraphs, headings, and, if time permits, the first sentences of each paragraph. This is no substitute for actually reading the material (your understanding of the material will be significantly shallower than if you had actually read through it), but it can help you to at least be familiar enough with it that you can follow any in-class discussion. (You’ll still need to go back and read the material later to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.)

Article Written by McKoo Staples

Based on material contained in: Putnam, A. L., Sungkhasettee, V. W., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2016). Optimizing learning in college: Tips from cognitive psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(5), 652-660. doi:10.1177/1745691616645770 Chapter 10 of Paul, K. (2014). Study smarter, not harder (4th ed.). North Vancouver, BC: International Self-Counsel Press Ltd.