How to Effectively & Efficiently Read or Study A Textbook

01 | The Methodology

Effectively reading your textbook is like creating a drawing.

how to effectively read your textbook

The first step we take should be getting an overview of what we are about to read. This is equivalent to an artist drawing an outline. In the same way an outline sets up the boundaries of a drawing, a mental overview sets up the boundaries of what we are about to learn. An outline helps you determine what the final product will look like without the details. For example, in step 1 of the image above we know that the final image will be a human. We just don't know all the details yet. Now, I can research or look up YouTube videos on all the different types of eyes and hairstyles I can draw to make it unique, but the final image will still be a human. It won't be a giraffe, for example. Taking a few minutes to do a mental overview of the textbook chapter or section you are about to read accomplishes the same goal. For example, maybe you are reading a chapter on Newton's laws. After reading the headings and the summary sections at the end, you might determine that this chapter will cover only the first law:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Now you have an idea of where this chapter starts and ends, although you don't know the details yet. You have an outline. I think it's easy to underestimate this step. Most students will just go straight into reading a chapter but I'll give you an analogy for why that is a bad idea. Imagine that you are a runner and that I am your coach. I say to you, "Okay keep running and I'll tell you when to stop." A minute goes by and you look at me. I shake my head. Two minutes go by and I haven't said anything. Ten minutes. Twenty. Sixty. At some point during that workout, you are going to start holding back. You have no idea when I am going to say, "Stop!" Now, imagine that I said, "Let's run for 20 minutes, take a 5 minute break, run for another 20, and then call it a day." You will be ready to go hard because you know the limits. If you know the boundaries of what you are studying, you will focus at a higher level than if you didn't. 

how to effectively read your textbook

The next step is to fill in the outline with some details. This is done by actively reading the textbook. The final step is to reflect over what you just learned. This is equivalent to outlining the drawing in black marker and colouring it in. 

So, the 3 steps to effectively and efficiently read or study from a textbook are: 

  1. Mentally Prime.
  2. Actively Read.
  3. Reflect.

Let's go into some more detail for each of those steps.

02 | MENTAL PRIMING

Reading a textbook is not like reading a novel. There are no twists and turns, and you aren’t hoping to be surprised. For the most part, the information doesn’t change. You are free to skip over sections that you think you already understand. Therefore, it’s actually a good idea to look ahead in the chapter and see exactly what you are going to go over. Read all the headings and the summary at the end of the chapter (if there is one). Skim over the questions at the end of the chapter. I talked a bit about mental priming in my “How to Take Good Notes” article. Essentially, by getting a general overview of the topic, you are "priming" your brain. Your brain will absorb important ideas more easily because it has seen them before. I would also recommend explaining out loud, to yourself, what you think the topic is about. This will help you realize any gaps in your knowledge which you will aim to fill in the next step.  

03 | READ ACTIVELY

Now, you have set up the boundaries of your reading session. You have an outline. The next step is to fill in the details. You do this by reading actively. Here are some tips for being an active reader:

  • Read in small chunks of only a few pages or a sub-section at a time.
  • Highlight keywords. Try to be as minimalistic with your highlighting as possible (only 1 or 2 main ideas per page).
  • Take notes on key topics using the Cornell method. 
  • Come across a really important page that you want to reference later? Flag it.
  • Most importantly, re-explain what you are reading, out loud, to yourself in your own words. You will probably get the most "bang for your buck" if you can re-explain what is going on in an example problem. 

Yes, it might feel silly. Especially, if you are reading out loud in public. Please don't read out loud in the library. But, it will really help you solidify what you know and don't know. Reading out loud might go a little something like this:

"Ah.. yes, so Newton's first law is that an object in motion stays in motion. An object at rest stays at rest. This is all true unless an object, in either case, is acted upon by an unbalanced force. Wait.. what is an unbalanced force? Hmm... wait, this reminds me of when I learned how to draw free body diagrams in physics. If I give the coin on my desk a little push, it eventually stops moving. This is because it has the unbalanced force of friction acting on it! EUREKA!"

Jk.. you probably won't be that excited.. or maybe you will be..? 

04 | REFLECT

It’s time to finalize the drawing. Textbook reading requires sequential understanding. What do I mean by that? Usually, you have to understand one section before moving on to the next.

how to effectively read your textbook

This is because the next section builds upon the knowledge gained in the last one. Therefore, it’s a good idea to reflect on what you learned after reading each section. Again, explain what you just read out loud. Try to use simple language. If you have any gaps in your knowledge, it’s a good idea to fill them in before moving on to the next section. Quick reminder: when I say section I am referring to the small amount of pages or sub-section you have chosen to read. For example, let's say a textbook chapter has 10 pages of dense information. I would read two, then reflect before moving on to the next two. Another great way to reflect on what you learned is to solve:

  • example problems without looking at the solution
  • questions at the back of the chapter
  • or assignment questions

05 | Textbook Reading is Simple but not Easy

Reading a textbook is a real mental workout. You have to constantly assess what you do and don’t know by trying to explain the concept out loud. Then, you have to go back and fill in any gaps in your knowledge. I think the methodology I laid out above would be enough if you weren't pressed for time. Unfortunately, more often than not, students are juggling so many responsibilities that the main resource they lack is time. I think this problem will get even worse with every new generation. The world gets faster and the demands on our students get larger. As a result, I will answer some common questions and offer some alternative methods.

06 | Alternative Methods for Textbook Reading

Question #1: Reading a textbook takes a lot of time. I don’t have the time. What should I do?

I think this will be the biggest problem that most students face. Students are juggling so many demands that they don’t have the time to really sit and actively read a whole chapter. In this case, I recommend using an alternative method when mentally priming. Originally, you would mentally prime for your reading session by reading the headings, the summary section, and the questions of a chapter. I still want you to do this but instead of diving into the full reading, I want you to start the corresponding assignment or essay. Most textbook readings are accompanied by an assignment, especially in engineering. When you get stuck on an assignment question, quickly summarize out loud what you do and don’t know about the problem. Write it down. Then, go over your lecture notes first and see if you can fill in the gaps in your knowledge. If you can’t, go to the textbook. The first thing I would look for is an example problem that is similar to the assignment question you are working on. If there are no example problems, you can start reading the textbook. This time, when you go to the textbook, you will have a better idea of what you are searching for because you set up more defined boundaries by going through your assignment and reading the lecture notes.  

Question #2: Even after reading a section and going through it out loud, I still don’t understand. HELP! 

I’m going to assume that you’ve already gone through your lecture notes as well and still can’t understand the topic. I think you have a few choices in this circumstance: 

  • Look up YouTube videos on the topic by using chapter headings and sub-headings as a guide. I also have a student resources section that has links to some very useful YouTube channels.
  • Put this assignment & reading on hold. Write down any questions you have and get them cleared up by going to your professor's office hours.
  • Ask a friend. There’s a good chance that at least one of your friends or classmates knows what’s going on. Sometimes it’s better to get an explanation from a peer because they might have had the same gaps in knowledge that you have now. 

Those are my tips on how to effectively & efficiently read or study a textbook. Hopefully, this article helps you become a better textbook reader.


Have more questions or do you have any textbook reading strategies of your own? Let me know in the comments!