We all know the old refrain: to pass this course, you have to read the textbook. Yes, your professors say, it’s quite important. No, prior students add, you can’t do it all the night before the finals.
But textbooks are big and dense, not to mention heavy to carry around with you. How do you really study a textbook? Let’s dive in and see!
Is There a Right Way for Studying a Textbook?
As with any other study method, there is no one ‘right way’ to study a textbook. There are, however, some methods which work far better than others, and general tips every student can benefit from. Ultimately, it’s up to you to try different methods and see which works best for you.
One tip right now: the best way to study is generally not to open a textbook and read it cover-to-cover, once through, like a novel. Some of you might have photographic memory and excellent information retention, but for most people, this doesn’t impart all the information a textbook has to offer.
So how do you absorb that information?
How Do You Effectively Study a Textbook?
There are endless methods and study tips that different people use to study their textbooks. In this article, we’ll go over common reading strategies, how to highlight, and how best to skim — just in case you’re running late.
Is it Worth Memorizing a Textbook?
As students, we dream of being able to spout answers quoted directly from our textbook, like a regular Hermione. But is that worth the time and effort– and is it the most effective way to learn?
Most research actually says no. Being able to spit out a definition of a word verbatim and actually understanding the meaning of that word are two subtly different things. The best way to make sure you really understand is to summarize your learning in your own words, rather than to memorize the phrasing your textbook uses. This way, you interact more with the subject matter. If you aren’t able to describe what a textbook is saying in a particular section, you probably don’t understand that section just yet — so summarizing is a good marker of which sections you need to re-visit.
Furthermore, most classes are designed by the professor or department head, and do not correlate directly to the textbook. Professors will often assign readings or inform you which chapters correlate to which units. More than likely there are a few chapters of the textbook which will be left out of your actual coursework. There’s no problem with reading those chapters, of course, but memorizing them would not be the best use of your time.
How Do You Skim a Textbook?
Textbook authors know their books are dense, slow-going reads, and they’ve tried to make it manageable for students. Examine your textbook: chances are the table of contents is highly detailed, and the chapter heads contain little blurbs about what that chapter will contain. Many textbooks have numerous appendices and glossaries, as well as summaries of chapters, either at the end of each chapter, or grouped together at the back of the book. These are great for normal studying, but they also make skimming a textbook that much easier.
These summaries are especially useful for skimming. If you have three chapters to skim, for example, you’d do best to read the summaries first. Note, either mentally or on paper, which subjects you already know, and which you would like to skim over. Prioritize, and skip to the sections you know least well. Then you can work through the sections you are more familiar with, and eventually tie everything together.
Another good way to skim is to look over which concepts or words you are unfamiliar with. Then, using either chapter summaries or the textbook index, skip to the descriptions of those words and concepts. You may jump around the textbook a little, but you will cherry-pick the information you need, without slogging through pages of information you don’t.
Finally, when you are ‘skimming’ those particular sections, what does it mean? What are you literally doing?
Quickly read a paragraph or parts of a paragraph, without pausing. At the end of the paragraph, summarize to yourself what you just read (this is similar to normal-paced studying with a textbook, but a bit quicker, and targeting the sections you are least familiar with). Did you understand it fully? Or do you need to read it again, slower and more carefully?
Do this for as many paragraphs as you need. If you are skimming a section you already know well, you may not need to read every single paragraph. Knowing where to draw the line of what to read and what to skip is a skill that simply improves with practice.
How to Read Textbooks and Retain Information
So far, we’ve discussed what not to do (ie, memorize everything verbatim), and how to skim when you’re in a pinch. But what is the healthiest, most stress-free method of studying — how do you retain information from a textbook?
We’ll go over some good strategies and tips below, but the general overview is quite simple. You are reading to learn and understand, so as you read, make sure that you understand what is being explained. There are different approaches, and you’ll have to figure out what works best for you.
A very common and quite useful strategy: summarize each paragraph or group of paragraphs aloud to yourself, in your mind, or on paper.
The trick is finding balance between taking too many notes and taking too few. It’s not advisable to make notes on every sentence — that disrupts your flow, and will likely make it harder to digest info-heavy paragraphs. However, if you read too many paragraphs or pages at once, it can be hard to condense that much information into useful notes.
The bottom line of how to take notes is to interact with your textbook. Passively reading does not lend itself well to absorbing and retaining information. Highlighting, note-taking, and summarizing are all tools to make you interact with the information, and process it at a deeper level. Let’s look at how best to use these strategies.
What are Common Textbook Reading Strategies?
Let’s look at good textbook reading strategies. Remember, every learner is different, so what works for some students may not work for you — and vice versa. It’s probably not the best use of time to employ all these methods at once. Rather, try out a few for one unit, then try out some others later on. See which ones feel best to you.
Keep a vocab list.
There are two ways to do this. Method one: look over the ‘important vocabulary’ or similar section in your textbook, where your textbook authors have likely been kind enough to provide new vocabulary along with definitions at the front or back of a chapter (or glossary, etc). Which terms are new to you? Which are you already familiar with? Write down the new ones, and make sure you are able to define and explain them by the chapter’s end.
Method two: ignore what the textbook authors say is new, and simply write down any new word you do not know, as you read it. Chances are those words will be the ‘new vocab’ words anyway, so it’s not like you’re missing out. Then, as before, make sure you are able to define the new words by the time you’ve finished that chapter.
If you are someone who benefits from flashcards — either using them, or simply making them, as a method to retain new information — then feel free to write new vocab on flashcards.
This method is best coupled with other note-taking, but if your vocab descriptions also encompass new concepts and diagrams, then it can suffice for your textbook notes.
Summarize in small chunks.
We’ve discussed this one a bit before, so just to re-hash: summarizing makes you interact actively with the new information, which will help you absorb it and remember it in the long run. Keep your summaries as sparse or as detailed as you please. You will hone your note-taking to maximum efficiency with time.
Many textbooks, particularly science textbooks, come with diagrams. Have you ever stared at a Lewis structure of a molecule and seen only chaos and a pervading sense of fear? You aren’t alone. Re-drawing diagrams into your notes essentially forces you to interact with the diagram, understanding all the parts of it, and how they connect. As you connect your molecules or label your parts of a cell, try and make sure you understand what is happening under your pencil — why is that a double bond, instead of a single bond? Why are those two organelles located beside each other? This will deepen your understanding and make the information stick with you for longer.
Write in your textbook.
Did you pay an egregrious sum of money to keep a perfectly clean textbook? Heck naw! That textbook is yours to mutilate, so scribble all up those margins, my friend!
This comes with the obvious caveat that if the textbook in question is not yours to mutilate, perhaps attach sticky notes, or write very lightly in pencil.
But, you say, we’ve been raised not to write in books. Librarians yell at kids for that stuff. So why write in your textbook, instead of in a notebook beside it? Fundamentally it doesn’t matter where your notes are, but writing in your textbook makes you feel that you understand the textbook, that you have interacted with it and left your mark. It works in the same way that some students study, quite effectively, by making flashcards, without ever actually flipping through them. The act of writing words and definitions is enough to cement the information in a student’s brain, so they don’t actually need the flashcards to study — making them was study enough. Similarly, you may not need to look back at your margin notes — they’re just a way of actively digesting new information, so that it is retained in your memory.
This comes with the same caveat as above — if it’s a school loan or rented textbook, use caution. Or erasable highlighters.
Highlighting is a powerful tool, and smearing hot pink and neon orange all over your expensive materials certainly feels powerful. It’s good for reading dense textbooks, and makes information easily accessible for when you need to review. But there is a right way and a wrong way to highlight, so let’s dive in.
How to Highlight a Textbook
Highlighting a textbook serves two purposes: one, it emphasizes important information, so what when you come back to study again, you can skip to what’s important. If you’ve taken good notes, you’ll remember whole sections after just reading over the key lines you’ve highlighted.
The second purpose is much the same as writing in your textbook, as above: highlighting keeps you focused on which information is important, and engages you as an active learner instead of a passive reader.
However, this is where a great many students go “wrong” by mindlessly highlighting far too much information. It’s an easy trap to fall into: it’s late, you’re nodding off, and you’re highlighting as you read. All seems fine, until you blink and realize that an entire page is now bright orange, and you’re still not sure what it says.
That isn’t bad, per se — it’s certainly better than not reading at all, and if compulsively highlighted books are part of your persona, fly with it. But in general, highlighting too much destroys the purpose of drawing attention to an efficient line or two to look back on when reviewing — you don’t want to review full pages. Furthermore, highlighting everything mindlessly is not, at its core, active learning — it’s just passive reading with a pen in your hand.
So to effectively highlight, it’s best to make sure you only highlight the words or information which is vital, and which you will want to look back on later. Generally speaking, you want to avoid highlighting more than one full sentence at a time.
A few more highlighting tips:
Highlight your notes! Pages of notes, whether neat or scrawly, look nicer with spots of color — and it’s easier to find vocab words when you’re reviewing that way, too!
Use color for diagrams. You know diagrams are complex. Sometimes color-coding can make them easier to understand at a glance (again, think review), and can help cement patterns in your mind. For instance, if you’re having trouble remembering which elements are in which groups, you can color-code by group — alkali earth metals orange, alkalines pink, et cetera.
Have fun with it. A lot of studying is not about frivolity and creativity. But this can be! There are so many highlighter options these days, not just traffic-jacket yellow. Check out pretty pastels, or unlock your inner middle schooler with glittery gel pens. They’re your notes, after all.
Wrapping Things Up: How to Study a Textbook
Let’s review: textbooks are long and dense, and reading them is arduous. But that’s okay! You’re tough as nails and are ready to dive in to this.
Memorizing textbooks verbatim is not the best way to absorb and retain the information, and probably isn’t a good use of time, either. (Do you know who also memorizes whole textbooks? Professor Snape. He recognizes when Hermione quotes from them).
When skimming a textbook, be sure to look for important vocab, or use the glossary or index to locate the specific information you need to learn. Summarize paragraphs or sections as you read.
When learning from a textbook, interact with the text, by taking notes, writing summaries, scribbling in the margins, listing keywords, and highlighting. When highlighting, be sure to do it actively and when needed, marking only important words or phrases that will make the text easier to review later on.
With these tips under your belt, soon you’ll be reading textbooks for fun!
Or, potentially, having actual fun, your textbook studying being blissfully done.
If you found this helpful, you’ll love our other high school study tips.
Also, check out more of our how-to study tips here: