Reading College Textbooks

Key to your success as a college student will be your ability to profit from the hours you'll have to spend reading your textbooks. Professors routinely assign large chunks of textbook material to be read and assimilated, and you'll need a method that will help you use your time wisely. I hope the following tips help.  

The first tip is simple and fundamental: do all of the assigned reading when it's scheduled. Remember-- no excuses and use your time wisely. (These tips do build upon each other, don't they?)

Next, consider your purpose in reading a textbook; different from reading a novel, a newspaper article, or even directions to a friend's house, your purpose in reading a textbook is to learn and be able to recall and report on the material. You have to come out of the experience "knowing this stuff." It stands to reason that you'll need to read differently too.  Your job is not simply to "pass your eyes over" the assigned pages and then announce proudly, "I read the pages; I did the assignment." Acknowledge the distinction between real reading and just having passed blissfully through the pages.

Develop a system that allows you to read and learn. While I agree that “whatever works…works,” there are some proven techniques for reading college textbooks, and here’s one for you to consider.  Many reading texts refer to SQ3R or PQ3R; you may have heard of one or both. Briefly, you first need to "look over" the large elements of the chapter: the title, the introduction, the summary and/or questions in the back of the chapter (no it's not cheating!!), any headings within the chapter, even some of the pictures and graphs. This step (no more than five or ten minutes) gives you a needed overview and provides an orientation to what's in the chapter. You won't know the material yet; you'll just be ready to learn it.

To be sure that you get at the important materials and that you take charge of the chapter, the next step is to turn the headings and any other important parts into questions. If you ask yourself "What is short-term memory?" or "What were the important characteristics of Greek culture?" you have taken a large step toward identifying and defining what you need to know.

The next step is to read to find the answer(s) to your questions. It guides you through the chapter, and the answers become material for additional study and review. You'll be better able to separate the most significant points from those of lesser importance. As you keep using this method, you'll get increasingly proficient at framing logical and pertinent questions.

But just finding the answers isn't enough; you have to record these responses in a form that will allow you to retrieve and recall them. Some like to underline in their texts; others write notes in the margins; still others write the questions and answers in a notebook; some do all three. (Get some “stickies” to write on if you are renting the texts.)  I'm for anything that makes you take an active role in this process- especially the writing part. You can't just sit there and hope passively that by some mysterious osmotic process you will learn and absorb the material!!   

Finally, I'm a major fan of being honest with yourself about what you know, and that means an honest review of the material, actually frequent honest reviews of the material. At some point, you need to see if you know the stuff--especially near quiz or exam time. So as you're studying, take a second or two to write down some questions, some names, some terms that you feel might appear on a test, and at some point, close your book and try to answer them--and do it in writing. Then see how you did on this "practice exam." Congratulate yourself if you've done well; fill in the missing parts (I use a different color pen or a different font in my computer) if you need to. If you've written it out, chances are you'll remember it. It will be your personal, individual relationship with that question.  Try it; believe me, it'll help when the real tests come along.

Two final points about textbooks. I know all this sounds like a lot of time, but it's really not-- it's time well spent, and it will cut down on your prep time before exams.   Finally, I know that some students have one goal with their textbooks: to keep them clean and pure and sell them back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. That's not one of the best business ventures since you will get back a very small percentage of what you spent in the first place. Instead, look at the long term and the value (knowledge, insight, even good grades) you'll gain from marking them up and using them correctly.