How to Properly Use a Textbook

Girl reading a German book while sun bathing

Image "Studious Andrea" courtesy of Flickr user Robert Wallace (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Student: I failed my midterm(s).
Me: I’m sorry to hear that. Why do you think you failed?
Student: I don’t know! I’ve been studying really hard.
Me: So how do you study?
Student: Well, I read the textbook…

On a good day, I inwardly sigh. On a bad day, I want to *headdesk* and *ragequit* (yes, I just said ragequit). Why? Because reading the textbook is NOT a study technique!

Why not? Because deliberate practice is the best way of understanding or getting good at something. Deliberate practice is:

1. Studying with focus and without distraction…
2. With a goal in mind…
3. While being challenged by the contents (of what you’re studying)…
4. And using feedback to make adjustments in approach…
(repeat)

Reading a textbook may satisfy criterion 1 and maybe criterion 2. However, even though reading the textbook may feel challenging, it’s not the good type of challenging when you feel your mind bending around and understanding a concept. No, reading a dense textbook sometimes feel like hitting a mental wall with no hope of going around and usually breeds frustration. Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, the textbook offers no feedback and there are very few ways to track how you’re learning objectively. Sure you could do the in chapter questions, but even that is usually about memorization and not understanding.

The high school way of simply reading through a chapter from beginning to the end is passive, not active, learning and is highly ineffective.

So how can you use your textbook properly? That depends on the course. If…

… The course is memory intensive and you will be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. psychology, history):

You’ll have no choice but to read everything. BUT, don’t just read. Do something active while you’re at it. Write summary notes, create study questions, note down how all the key terms link to each other, etc. This helps retention and prevent you from having to re-read the textbook for the midterm or the final (because you have notes!).

… The course is memory intensive and you will not be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. biology, physiology, pharmacology, genetics):

Don’t read any more than you have to. If your professor states that he or she won’t test you anything that haven’t been covered in class, then there is no need to read your textbook unless you don’t understand a topic. Use the textbook like a highly specialized encyclopedia (er… Wikipedia or Google). Read the section you don’t understand (plus any other sections necessary to understand that section). Then move on to higher yield study techniques.

… The course is not memory intensive and is more about problem solving (e.g. math, physics, some chemistry):

Use the book for the questions (if they are like the ones your prof asks on exams). Don’t simply read the example questions in the textbook – actually do them! Cover up the answers, read the question, and go as far as you can. If you solved the question, move on to the next one. If you are study, look at that section of the answer key, then cover it up again and redo the question! This may take some more time than straight up reading, but you will learn and retain so much more.

… You’re pre-reading. 

Figure out if you need to pre-read first, then act accordingly.

The textbook is a reference material. For better understanding and retention of topics, you must supplement it (or replace it) with more effective studying techniques.

 

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