Strategies for Reading Textbooks

As you begin to read, be sure to learn more about the textbook and its author by reading the frontmatter in the book, such as the preface, foreword, introduction, and author’s biographical sketch. The preface is usually written by the author or authors and will tell you why they wrote the book and what material it covers. It will also explain the book’s organization and give insight into the author’s perspective. The preface will likely help you see the relationships among the facts presented and comprehend the ideas presented across the book. Textbooks often have a preface written to the instructor and a separate preface for the students. The foreword is often an endorsement of the book written by someone other than the author. Some books have an additional introduction that reviews the book’s overall organization and its contents chapter by chapter.

Some textbooks include study questions at the end of each chapter. Take time to read and respond to these questions, whether or not your instructor requires you to do so.

Textbooks must try to cover a lot of material in a fairly limited space, and they won’t necessarily provide all the things you want to know about a topic. If you find yourself fascinated by a particular topic, go to the primary sources, the original research or document. You’ll find them referenced in almost all textbooks, either at the end of the chapters or in the back of the book.

You might also go to other related sources that make the text more interesting and informative. Because some textbooks are sold with test banks, your instructors might draw their examinations directly from the text, or they might use the textbook only to supplement the lectures. Ask your instructors what the tests will cover and the types of questions that will be used. Some instructors expect you to read the textbook carefully, while others are much more concerned that you be able to understand broad concepts that come primarily from lectures.

Finally, not all textbooks are equal. Some are better designed and written than others. If your textbook seems disorganized or hard to understand, let your instructor know your opinion. Others likely share your opinion. Your instructor might spend some class time explaining the text, and he or she can meet with you during office hours to help you with the material. Instructors also use student feedback on textbooks to help them choose which ones to select for future classes.

Math Texts

Although the previous suggestions about textbook reading apply across the board, mathematics textbooks present some special challenges because they tend to have lots of symbols and very few words. Each statement and every line in the solution of a problem need to be considered and digested slowly. Typically, the author presents the material through definitions, theorems, and sample problems. As you read, pay special attention to definitions. Learning all the terms that relate to a new topic is the first step toward understanding.

Math texts usually include derivations of formulas and proofs of theorems. You must understand and be able to apply the formulas and theorems, but unless your course has a particularly theoretical emphasis, you are less likely to be responsible for all the proofs. So, if you get lost in the proof of a theorem, go on to the next item in the section. When you come to a sample problem, it’s time to get busy. Pick up pencil and paper, work through the problem in the book, and then cover the solution and think through the problem on your own. Of course, the exercises that follow each text section form the heart of any math book. A large portion of the time you devote to the course will be spent completing assigned textbook exercises. It is absolutely vital that you do this homework in a timely manner, whether or not your instructor collects it. Success in mathematics requires regular practice, and students who keep up with math homework, either alone or in groups, perform better than students who don’t.

After you complete the assignment, skim through the other exercises in the problem set. Reading the unassigned problems will deepen your understanding of the topic and its scope. Finally, talk the material through to yourself. Be sure your focus is on understanding the problem and its solution, not on memorization. Memorizing something might help you remember how to work through one problem, but it does not help you understand the steps involved so that you can employ them for other problems.

Science Texts

Your approach to your science textbook will depend somewhat on whether you are studying a math-based science, such as physics, or a text-based science, such as biology. In either case, you need to become acquainted with the overall format of the book. Review the table of contents and the glossary. Also check the material in the appendices. There, you will find lists of physical constants, unit conversions, and various charts and tables. Many physics and chemistry books also include a minireview of the math you will need in science courses.

Notice the organization of each chapter. Pay special attention to graphs, charts, and boxes. The amount of technical detail might seem overwhelming, but—believe it or not—the authors have sincerely tried to present the material in an easy-to-follow format. Each chapter might begin with chapter objectives and conclude with a short summary, sections that can be useful to study both before and after reading the chapter. You will usually find answers to selected problems in the back of the book. Use the answer key or the student solutions manual to promote your mastery of each chapter.

As you begin an assigned section in a science text, skim the material quickly to gain a general idea of the topic. Begin to absorb the new vocabulary and technical symbols. Then skim the end-of-chapter problems so that you’ll know what to look for in your detailed reading of the chapter. State a specific goal: “I’m going to learn about recent developments in plate tectonics,” “I’m going to distinguish between mitosis and meiosis,” or “Tonight I’m going to focus on the topics in this chapter that were stressed in class.”

Should you underline and highlight, or should you outline the material in your science textbooks? You might decide to underline and highlight for a subject such as anatomy, which involves a lot of memorization. Use restraint with a highlighter, however; it should pull your eye only to important terms and facts. If highlighting is actually a form of procrastination for you (you are reading through the material but are planning to learn it at a later date) or if you are highlighting nearly everything you read, your highlighting might be doing you more harm than good. You won’t be able to identify important concepts quickly if they’re lost in a sea of color. Ask yourself whether the frequency of your highlighting is helping you be more active in your learning process. If not, you might want to highlight less or try a different technique such as margin notes or annotations.

In most sciences it is best to outline the text chapters. You can usually identify main topics, subtopics, and specific terms under each subtopic in your text by the size of the print.

To save time when you are outlining, don’t write full sentences, but do include clear explanations of new technical terms and symbols. Pay special attention to topics that the instructor covered in class. If you aren’t sure whether your outlines contain too much or too little detail, compare them with the outlines that members of your study group have made. You could also consult with your instructor during office hours. In preparing for a test, it’s a good idea to make condensed versions of your chapter outlines so that you can see how everything fits together.

Social Science and Humanities Texts

Many of the suggestions that apply to science textbooks also apply to reading in the social sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, and history). Social science texts are filled with special terms or jargon that is unique to the particular field of study. These texts also describe research and theory building and contain references to many primary sources. Your social science texts might also describe differences in opinions or perspectives. Social scientists do not all agree on any one issue, and you might be introduced to a number of ongoing debates about particular issues. In fact, your reading can become more interesting if you seek out different opinions about a common issue. You might have to go beyond your particular textbook, but your library will be a good source of various viewpoints about ongoing controversies.

primary sources The original research or documentation on a topic, usually referenced either at the end of a chapter or at the back of the book.

Textbooks in the humanities (philosophy, religion, literature, music, and art) provide facts, examples, opinions, and original material, such as stories or essays. You will often be asked to react to your reading by identifying central themes or characters.

Some instructors believe that the way in which colleges and universities structure courses and majors artificially divides human knowledge and experience. For instance, they argue that subjects such as history, political science, and philosophy are closely linked and that studying each subject separately results in only partial understanding. By stressing the links between courses, these instructors encourage students to think in an interdisciplinary manner. You might be asked to consider how the book or story you’re reading or the music you’re studying reflects the political atmosphere or the culture of the period. Your art history instructor might direct you to think about how a particular painting gives you a window on the painter’s psychological makeup or religious beliefs.

Supplementary Material

Whether your instructor requires you to read material in addition to the textbook, your understanding will be enriched if you go to some of the primary and supplementary sources that are referenced in each chapter of your text. These sources can take the form of journal articles, research papers, dissertations (the major research papers that students write to earn a doctoral degree), or original essays, and they can be found online or in your library. Reading source material will give you a depth of detail that few textbooks accomplish.

humanities Branches of knowledge that investigate human beings, their culture, and their self-expression. They include the study of philosophy, religion, literature, music, and art.

interdisciplinary Linking two or more academic fields of study, such as history and religion. Encouraging an interdisciplinary approach to teaching can offer a better understanding of modern society.

Many sources were originally written for other instructors or researchers. They often use language and refer to concepts that are familiar to other scholars but not necessarily to first-year college students. If you are reading a journal article that describes a theory or research study, one technique for easier understanding is to read from the end to the beginning. Read the article’s conclusion and discussion sections. Then go back to see how the author performed the experiment or formulated the ideas. If you aren’t concerned about the specific method used to collect the data, you can skip over the “methodology” section. In almost all scholarly journals, articles are introduced by an abstract, a paragraph-length summary of the methods and major findings. Reading the abstract is a quick way to get the gist of a research article before you dive in. As you’re reading research articles, always ask yourself: So what? In your opinion, was the research important to what we know about the topic, or was it unnecessary?

abstract A paragraph-length summary of the methods and major findings of an article in a scholarly journal.