How to Read a College Textbook and Take Relevant Notes

Updated on June 13, 2020
sangre profile image

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

When you start college you will be required to read a list of books for that semester. Everybody has different methods on how they read books. But reading a textbook is a little bit like a project, you need to map out what it is you need to achieve from reading it.

By the time most of us have reached college, we have established a method on how to extract useful information from a book, and this will hold you well in college.

It takes a lot more time to read a college textbook compared to a general fiction book. 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 you 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

  • Each college textbook will have an index that lists the topics that are covered in that chapter.
  • At the start of each chapter there will be a summary page. This will list out areas of focus and help clarify what exactly it is that this chapter is about.
  • At the beginning or the end of each chapter or sub section in the textbook, there will be a section listing the learning outcome of this chapter. This is the section you read first.

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

“No country can really develop unless its citizens are educated.”

— Nelson Mandala
You can borrow college textbooks from your library.
You can borrow college textbooks from your library. | Source

Narrowing Down What to Read

  • Check your class notes from your lecture to see what areas it is that you need to study for that semester. Usually you will have a list of topics that give an outline of what the course is going to cover that semester. Once you have narrowed down areas of focus, you can then look at what chapters in your textbook you need to study.
  • Check your lecture notes and highlight any areas that you need to get clarity on. You might need to get further information on any areas you are struggling with.
  • If you need clarification on any key issues discussed in your lecture, take note of them and then check out the relevant college textbook to find the answers you need.

Following this method helps cut out unnecessary time wasted. It means you only research information on the areas you need at that time.

Browsing Textbooks Tips

Learn how to browse a textbook without having to read the whole chapter. Browsing gives you a taste of what the book is about and it helps you narrow down the areas you want to look at.

Some good ways to browse a book are as follows:

  1. Have a list of keywords from your notes to help you narrow down what areas you need to find information on.
  2. Reading the index at the back of the book helps narrow down what areas you need to find further information on.
  3. Always try to read the chapter summaries first and then look at the chapter index to see if what you need an answer to is covered in that chapter or section.
  4. If you are looking for information on a broad area, then skimming through a book when you have some spare time can sometimes work.
  5. Take note of the different heading and subcategories in a chapter to see if it is relevant to the area that you need more information on.

Reading college textbooks takes up a lot of your free time.
Reading college textbooks takes up a lot of your free time. | Source

Only Read what is Required

In college free time is sparse so you want to be efficient with the time you have free. Here are some top tips on reading a book efficiently.

  • Read the chapter outline and the summary. Both of these will give you an overview of what the chapter is about.
  • The key points of the chapter will be summarized at the front or the end of the book.
  • If there is an area you have to study that has specific topics that you need to know in it then pick out only those key areas in the textbook to look. Don't allow yourself to get distracted going off looking at other areas until you need to.
  • Doing these three things together will help you eliminate time doing unnecessary browsing and help you to economize your studying hours.

Heading and Sections in Textbooks

Each chapter of the textbook will usually have a few different sections which will then also have subsections. If a topic has to focus on a few key areas within the chapter, then it will be explained in this manner.

Look at each section and then each subsection in that chapter to see how they relate back to the topic you need more information on. This can help you waste less time as the answers to a question might be 15 pages in that chapter.

Narrowing down what you need to learn can reduce the time you spend reading a whole chapter.

The more that you read, the more things you will know, the more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

— Dr. Seuss

Layout of Paragraphs in Textbooks

In college textbooks the writing style can vary from book to book.

  • Usually the first paragraph of the book will explain what the topic is about.
  • The second paragraph in the textbook will give you an example to help you understand what the previous paragraph was talking about.
  • The third and final part of the paragraph will reiterate what the first and second paragraph was about so help you get a grasp of what it is the topic is about. The aim of this paragraph is to lead the reader into the next subsection of the chapter for the rest of that topic.

Reading Difficult Sections

Some college textbooks will use words that you are not familiar with. This might mean that you need to head over to your Collins dictionary to get the definition of the word. Once you find the definition of the word reread the section again and see if you now understand what it is the author is talking about.

If you have issues with this you can try out the following technique.

  • Firstly reread the paragraph again now that you know the definition of the word. If you have privacy, try rereading the paragraph out loud.
  • If you feel that you understand what the paragraph is about, try to rewrite it in your own words and in a method that makes it a lot more simpler for you to understand at a later date.
  • Using this method will allow you to summarize sections of topics you need to learn in a manner that makes easier for you to understand.

Focus only on the chapters that have the key information you need at this time.
Focus only on the chapters that have the key information you need at this time. | Source

Reading Techniques

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

See results

I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.

— Steven Wright

5 Textbook Tips

When you first decide to start reading a textbook, break it up into stages so it doesn't overwhelm you.

  1. Do not try to read a chapter of a whole book in one hour especially if it is an area that you know nothing about. You will just get bored and frustrated.
  2. Look at what you need to learn and plan out the areas you need to study up on.
  3. If you can only spend 30 minutes of your day reading a portion of the textbook then that is 30 minutes more of the chapter you have read.
  4. Look at your notes and write out the key areas you need to look at from the textbook.
  5. Write out a list of questions you need to get an answer from, from this chapter. This will help you focus on only the areas you need to find an answer for.

Browsing and reading only the key areas from a textbook reduces the time it takes to read a textbook.
Browsing and reading only the key areas from a textbook reduces the time it takes to read a textbook. | Source

Other Methods of Learning

Try not to spend your whole weekend reading your textbooks. Break it down into segments. Try to do 30 minutes or 1 hour instead.

This reduces your chances of getting bored or frustrated by spending so much time reading.

If you hate reading see if you can get the book in an audio book version. You can then listen to it on your phone while walking to class. Similarly you could download an eBook app and read your books on your cell phone while you are commuting to college.

Also reading a book over a number of hours over a number of weeks means you won't get overwhelmed or bored by trying to do it all in one sitting.

You will be surprised what your memory will recall about a chapter you read a little while later.

By seeking and blundering we learn.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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.

© 2013 Sp Greaney


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    • Justinblogger profile image

      Justin Peter 

      20 months ago from London, UK

      Really good article.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

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

    • sangre profile imageAUTHOR

      Sp Greaney 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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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