How to Read a College Textbook

Whenever I ask my students how they read a chapter in their textbook, they usually give me that expression which politely says, "What are you talking about?" Behind that expression are two truths: (1) Most students read their textbook chapters starting on the first page and just continue on to the last page, and (2) rarely have they been taught any differently. Too bad. Reading a chapter from beginning to end is the least efficient, least effective way possible.

A textbook should be read differently than any other type of book.

Most students are passive readers. To get the most out of a chapter, students need to become active readers. Ask yourself this: what’s the most effective way to learn to change a flat tire, reading the owner’s manual or actually changing a flat tire? Believe me, you learn fast when you actually need to change a flat tire. Why is that? Because you involve several of your senses (sight, sound, muscle action—and quite likely speaking). In this situation, actually the most effective way is to read the owner’s manual first, and then to change the tire. The more of our senses we involve in anything, the more effective is our learning.

The same principle applies in reading a textbook chapter effectively. The more of our senses we can get involved, the more effective our reading will be. If you are accustomed to just reading silently and turning pages, that will sound strange. But changing that attitude will turn you from a passive reader into an active reader. Will reading a chapter as an active reader take longer? Yes, but not much. One payoff is in how much more you learn and especially how much more you remember. Another payoff is that when you need to review the chapter again for a test, reviewing will take a lot less time—when you need extra time. Have you ever turned a page and thought, "What did I just read?" That unhappy feeling doesn't happen to active readers.

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Previewing the Chapter

Why check out a chapter before you begin reading? If you need to drive somewhere but don’t know how to get to your destination, wouldn’t you first get directions or check out a road map? Previewing your route is an effective way of getting to your destination efficiently. Similarly, previewing a chapter gives you an idea of what the chapter is about and what its organization is.

There are generally three ways to preview, depending on how your textbook is laid out.

  1. If your textbook has a summary at the end of a chapter, read the summary first.
  2. If your textbook doesn’t have a summary but does have subheadings in bold or italicized print, go through the chapter reading the subheadings.
  3. If the chapter has neither a summary nor subheadings, the procedure is a little more complicated. First, read the first paragraph or two until you come to the thesis statement—the sentence that tells what the chapter will be about. Underline this thesis statement. Then read the very last paragraph or two, where you will find the author’s conclusion. Underline the conclusion. Then compare the two underlined sentences, and you will have the main idea of the chapter. Now go back and underline the first sentence of each paragraph in the chapter. Usually these sentences will be the paragraphs’ topic sentences. Reading just these underlined topic sentences will provide the reader with an outline of the whole chapter.

The good news is that most textbooks do have summaries, so the first method listed above will be the most common one that you use.

Seeing the "whole picture" before you begin reading will help tremendously in your understanding of how parts of a chapter fit into the whole.

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Asking Questions

Educators from Socrates to those of us in the classroom presently, acknowledge the power of asking questions. You too can use the power of questioning in reading your textbooks.

The most useful aid in becoming an active, questioning reader are subheadings which are in bold print or italicized. Every time you come to one of them, pause and turn that subheading into a question. (For your questions, use the five "W’s" and one "H"--what, where, when, why, who, and how.) So, for instance,

The Battle of Gettysburg becomes
"Why was the Battle of Gettysburg important?"

The dangers of saturated fat becomes
"What are the dangers of saturated fats?"

George Spelvin becomes
"Who was George Spelvin?" or
"What did George Spelvin do?" or
any other question.

The big reason for doing this is that we remember more of what we read if we read to answer a question. Surprisingly, even if the textbook paragraph doesn’t answer the question we’ve made up, the learning effectiveness is still there.

One more thing: When you’ve turned a subheading into a question, say the question out loud to yourself. (Remember, the more of your senses you can get involved, the more effective is the learning.)

(Note: Some textbooks have study questions at the beginning or end of a chapter. Usually those questions are in the same order as the chapter’s material. If your chapter has a list of study questions, read the first study question out loud to yourself, then read the chapter until the question is answered. Then come back to the list of questions, read the next one…and so on, until you’ve finished reading the chapter.)

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O.K., now you have previewed the chapter. You’ve also learned how to turn subheadings into questions. Now you’re ready to read.

Textbook reading should be an active process.

  1. It helps to fix the material in your mind, and
  2. If you can’t summarize what you just read, it’s a sure sign that you haven’t learned it, and that you should read it again.

It’s easy for you to kid yourself that you have learned the material just because you’ve read it. Easy, but wrong. You cannot remember what you don’t understand, and you can’t do effective reading further on if you don’t comprehend what you just read.

Reading, speaking, and writing, used together, use the fundamental principle that the more of your senses that are involved, the more effective the learning. Textbook reading should be an active process.

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When exam time comes, you will need to go back and re-read the chapters which will be covered on the exam. No one needs to tell you that this is pressure time.

If you have been an active reader as suggested above, then when the time comes to study for a test, you will be able to review the chapter(s) simply by reading the subheadings, noting the highlighted or underlined sentences, and recalling the summaries you said out loud earlier. Review thus becomes an efficient process, more than making up for the little bit of additional time it took to read the chapter as an active reader the first time through.

As stated earlier, most students have simply fallen into the bad habit of just reading a chapter from beginning to end because they haven’t been taught any differently. What’s the key word in that statement? Habit. One of the best ways of changing a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. Usually that’s what is happening when you become an active reader, using the techniques and knowledge you have just read.