How to Read a College Textbook and Take Relevant Notes

Updated on February 7, 2019
sangre profile image

College gave me an appreciation for reading and research and made me realise how stressful studying is.

In college most courses will require you to read a list of books for that semester. There is no right or wrong way to read a book. But if you want to get the best out of it, you need to approach it like a project.

If you have established a method in high school on the best methods to help you extract useful information from a book, then this will hold you well in college.

The time it takes to read a college textbook compared to a general fiction book will be longer. Some people are very quick readers but the majority of us aren't and it takes us a while to understand the details in the book especially if it is about an area we know nothing about.

When you're in college, you need to find methods that save you time especially when you have deadlines coming up on assignments and chapters to read for a class.

Understanding the Layout of a College Textbook

  • Check the index list at the front of each college textbook as this index will list the topics that will be covered in that section.
  • Look at the list of topics covered in the summary at the start of each chapter of the textbook that you need to read to get clarity on what that chapter will cover.
  • Each chapter or section in the textbook will have a learning outcome at the start of each chapter which will lists what you need to know after reading this chapter.

In college your time is scare, so you need to take advantage of every free minute you have in the day to read your course books.

In college your time is scare, so you need to take advantage of every free minute you have in the day to read your course books.

Stack of textbooks.
Stack of textbooks. | Source

Narrowing Down What to Read

  • Prior to reading a college textbook, check your college notes to see what areas in the book you need to read and what areas your lecturer expects to cover in the next class.
  • Check your own written notes from class and see if there are any other key areas that you might need to do more research on.
  • If you need clarification on any key issues, take note of them and find the appropriate answer in the college textbook. This will cut down on your reading time as you only research information on areas you need more information on.

Browsing Textbooks Tips

Browsing is just another skill you need to learn. It helps you search out data that is relevant to the question you need an answer to. Here are some quick browsing tips.

  1. Use key words from your notes to help you narrow down what you need to find.
  2. Always read the indexes at the back of the book which will further help you narrow down what you need to find information on.
  3. Always read the chapter summaries and chapter indexes to see if what you need answered is covered there.
  4. Skimming through a book when you have lots of time can sometimes work when it comes to finding relevant information.
  5. Glance at the heading and subcategories in a chapter to see if it is relevant to what you need more information on.

Only Read what is Required

In college you need to take advantage of any free periods so be smart with your time.

  • Look at the chapter outline or summary of the book you need to read. This will give a quick overview and summary on the chapter.
  • Key points will be summarized at the front of each chapter.
  • This eliminates unnecessary reading when studying.
  • If you have bullet points on key areas you need to focus on, it will be easier to pick out the relevant information required when reading the textbook.

Taking notes from a book
Taking notes from a book | Source

Heading and Sections in Textbooks

You can use headings and subsections in the chapters to see if any of them relate back to your original questions. This cuts back on your time and it stops you having to read the whole college textbook.

Narrow down exactly what it is you need information on so you don't miss the information you are looking for.

Our brain can only hold so much information within a short period of time. So you will most likely remember what you read in the first 30 minutes but not the last.

Layout of Paragraphs in Textbooks

In college textbooks the writing style can sometimes follow a pattern.

  • The first paragraph in a section can explain what it is you are about to learn.
  • The second paragraph will give you an example to help you understand what it is they are talking about.
  • The third part of the paragraph will reiterate what it is they have already said in the previous paragraph. This paragraph will nicely lead into the next section or subsection relating to that particular topic.

Reading Difficult Sections

Some college textbooks require you to have a dictionary on hand with the amount of big new words they will use. Some words will be ones you’ve never heard of before. This can be difficult if it is your first time reading a college textbook. If you have issues with this you can try out the following technique.

  • Reread the sentences to get a better understanding of what it they are trying to tell you.
  • Once you have grasps what that sentences or word is trying to tell you, write out a sentence in your own words that incorporates the meaning of the word but excludes the actual word itself.
  • This method will allow you to learn the word and its meaning but in your own words.

You should not skip reading a difficult section; they might be relevant to the section above or the next section you intend to read.

Have a dictionary on hand for difficult words.
Have a dictionary on hand for difficult words. | Source

5 Textbook Tips

The first time you start reading college textbooks, it is better to break it up into stages.

  1. Don’t put pressure on yourself to read a whole chapter of a book in one sitting.
  2. Spend time getting to grips with what it is you need to learn.
  3. If you can only take 30 minutes at lunch time to read a book, then take advantage of it.
  4. Before you begin, lay out all your notes and the book/s you need to read.
  5. Refer to any notes and written questions that need answering.

Success Is Never Far Away

Reading Techniques

Did you have a particular method you favoured when reading college textbooks?

See results

Spread it Out

If you do a little bit of reading each day, before you know it you will have a lot read. Take 15 or 30 minutes of each afternoon or evening to read your course books. Reading books at intervals like this can help you retain more knowledge of what it is you just read. You will be amazed at what you can recall from these small reading intervals.

How To Learn In College

University Lecturer Dr. Stuart McKelvie gives an overview of how to cope in college and advises student on note taking and study techniques for college.

If you skip to 10:46 you can head to the note taking section that is covered in this video.

Finally remember the more practice you do the better you become. Don't put off today what you can do tomorrow.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Sp Greaney


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      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        16 months ago

        That's true. There are many variables, it could even vary with a person depending on subject.

      • sangre profile imageAUTHOR

        Sp Greaney 

        16 months ago from Ireland

        @Robert Sacchi, 100% agree with you there. But no one will ever tell you the correct way to study either. Each of us will approach it differently.

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        16 months ago

        Exactly, get through subjects such as History and English by repeating what the book and teacher says. That leaves time to concentrate on subjects such as Math and Science.

      • sangre profile imageAUTHOR

        Sp Greaney 

        16 months ago from Ireland

        @Robert Sacchi, yes that method is one of the worst ways to learn I feel but it is still the most popular for theory subjects. Maths, now that you will not pass with rote learning.

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        16 months ago

        Yes, it seems in many cases A students use rote memory for the unimportant subjects so they can focus on learning the important subjects.

      • sangre profile imageAUTHOR

        Sp Greaney 

        16 months ago from Ireland

        @Robert Sacchi yes it is. Too much to do with too little time to do it. :)

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        16 months ago

        This seems a very good approach. It seems in school time management is the big thing and I think this article helps a lot.


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