Get the Most Out of Your Textbooks

Reading assignments including textbooks, book chapters, and articles make up the bulk of your work outside of your classes. For many students, reading is a chore they come to dread, or they simply don’t feel like they have enough time to accomplish all of their assigned reading.

If you are using our time management and study planning tips, finding the time to complete reading assignments shouldn’t be a challenge. But how do you make sure that the time you spend sitting in front of your textbooks and other reading materials is productive? The key is learning how to read more efficiently and effectively. Follow the steps below to learn more about the best strategies for reading textbooks, and more importantly, absorbing the information they contain.

7 Steps on how to read a textbook

person reading a textbook
Step #1: Find a quiet place to read where you can focus
Where you read will make a difference on how productive your reading time is. Make sure you are in a space free of distractions like television, loud music, and other noises. If having some noise helps you focus, try using instrumental music or soothing ambient noise that won’t distract you or compete with what you’re reading.

While it may be tempting to curl up in bed or on your couch with your books, a cozy place may make it harder to stay focused and alert. Choose a reading spot where you are comfortable but not too comfortable, such as your desk or kitchen table, a library or study lounge, or even outside in a park.

Step #2: Survey
Textbook chapters can be long and dense. Instead of just diving in and trying to ingest all the information in one go, take a minute to survey the material. Many textbooks include summary questions throughout the chapter, or at the end. Start by reading these questions, so you will get a sense of the main ideas the chapter is trying to convey.

Also, if there is a final summary at the end of the chapter, read that too. Even if all of the information doesn’t make sense to you yet, it will provide clues as to what the key takeaways from your reading should be. Skim through the chapter to note any sub-headings, bolded words or phrases, and images. You will also find it helpful to read the chapter’s introductory paragraph, which provides insight as to the information contained in the chapter.

Step #3: Question
If you are taking notes as you read your textbooks, formulate questions based on what you learned during the survey step. This will help make your reading more active, as you look for answers to your questions in the chapter. Be sure to label your notes with the chapter number and title, or the name of the article, so you can easily find your notes later.

Ask yourself what the most important topics or concepts in the chapter are. You may find that turning each heading into a question is helpful. Your questions can be straightforward, such as Who is X person? or When did X event happen? They can also be more conceptual, such as How does this relate to what we learned in the last chapter?

Step #4: Read
Once you’ve become familiar with what the chapter will cover, it is time to start reading. Use what you discovered in step two to recognize any important terms or concepts. It is also a good idea to underline or highlight any information you think is important and that you would like to revisit later.

You’ll get the most out of lectures by reading the chapter your professor is going to discuss in advance of the class. By reading ahead of time, you will be more receptive and will have context for understanding challenging concepts. After class, focus your reading on concepts your professor emphasized in class.

Step #5: Recite
After you have finished reading the text, the next step is to recite the information you learned. This is a good time to answer the questions you developed in step three. Try to answer each question without referring to the textbook in order to test whether you really absorbed the material.

Once you feel you have a complete grasp of the material, repeat all the major topics and terms to yourself. Putting the concepts you read into your own words helps with memorization. Reciting the text is all about reviewing what you just read, so if you don’t feel confident that you can answer the questions you developed in step three, you should reread the text.

Step #6: Record
Now that you have a strong grasp on what you’ve read, write down the answers to your questions, and record any other key points from the chapter to reference later. Again, the answers don’t have to be word-for-word what is in the textbook. Paraphrasing can actually help determine if you fully understand the ideas discussed.

Also, write down all the key terms in the chapter along with their meaning. Some textbooks include a list of these terms at the end of each chapter.

This is also a good time to write down any questions you may still have about the material, to bring to class when you discuss the chapter you just read.

Step #7: Review
Now that you’ve read the material and taken notes, review everything you’ve learned. You can do this right after you have finished reading the material, or after some time has passed, to see how much you retained. Browse your notes to recall the important topics that were covered in the chapter. Try to predict questions that your professor may put on an exam and practice how you would answer them.

Make sure you have a strong understanding of what you read. If you feel confused or do not understand a concept, use the page references you included in your notes to go back and read about that concept.

Also, this is a good time to look over your notes to make sure they are thorough enough and contain all the important information you will have to study later. While your notes should be brief, they should also be detailed enough to allow you to refresh your memory of the most important concepts.

How to study with your textbook

woman taking notes from her laptop
Now that you know how to read a textbook thoroughly and effectively, using your textbook when it comes time to study for an exam or write a paper should be simple. You do not necessarily need to go through all six steps above, and if you’ve taken good notes, you won’t need to re-read the entire chapter.

You will find it helpful to re-read the introductory paragraph and summary at the end of the chapter. These give you a basic refresher about what information is included in the chapter. Use your questions and any questions from the text itself to review core concepts and terminology. Revisit headings, subheadings, and bolded terms. Also, maximize the work you’ve already done by reviewing underlined or highlighted words that you marked while you were reading.