Have trouble keeping up with your course’s required readings? Or do you just want to get more efficient at reading so you can have more free time?
In this post, we’re going to pass on some thoughts on how you can read your college textbooks more efficiently.
With a few hundred pages of text per book and multiple books to read in any given semester, completing all of the assigned readings in college is definitely not easy. But, with the right reading techniques, it can be much much easier.
On the whole, most textbooks have a lot of filler—that is, information beyond what you need to be able to understand the concepts that are being discussed. Typically, this is in the form of long-winded explanations and examples. In our opinion, as long as the content that you’re reading isn’t overly complex and doesn’t require this added information, these parts of the text are generally redundant in the grand scheme of comprehension.
Finding the Important Information
So, given the way textbooks are put together, we recommend reading them like you’re playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” (and if you don’t know what “Where’s Waldo?” is, learn about it here). Basically, what we mean by this is that you should scan for—and then read—only the sentences with important information.
The following are three typical indicators that a sentence should be read:
Definitions of important terms are often found in columns or in the summary sections of chapters.
2. Underlined, Bolded, or Italicized Words
Whenever you see words that are underlined, bolded, or italicized, it is typically an indicator that the sentence should be read.
3. Sentences with Numbering or Bullet Points
Whenever you see numbering (e.g. 1., 2., 3.) or bullet points, it is typically an indicator of a list of important information.
Otherwise, whenever they are available, you should always read the “learning outcomes” at the start of each chapter and the summary at the end. The “learning outcomes” are important because they tell you what you should learn by the end of any given chapter. This allows you to confirm that the scan-based reading successfully taught you everything that you were supposed to learn in the chapter. Likewise, chapter summaries tell you what was discussed and further confirms your understanding of the content.
What do you do if a textbook has none of these characteristics?
When a textbook doesn’t have any of the aforementioned features, start by reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Usually the main points are made in these sentences. Outside of that, you should scan each paragraph for important/relevant words—i.e. words that relate to the subject or that you don’t understand—and read those sentences. And finally, if there are no formal chapter summaries, read the first and last paragraph of any given section, in full, as these typically summarize the body of the material.
Even if your textbook does have some of the characteristics mentioned prior, it might still be a good idea to incorporate the methods mentioned in the preceding paragraph to enhance your comprehension.
- Always read the content before the applicable class so everything makes sense when you hear it from the professor. And hearing examples in class is much more efficient than reading them from the textbook—you probably don’t need to get examples twice and the explanations in class will likely be better.
- Read when you’re taking public transit to your school, having a bath, waiting for an appointment, going to the bathroom, or any other time when you’re idle. It might feel odd to do, but it’s a much better use of time that otherwise would have been wasted.
- Pay attention to content of class PowerPoints. These may have additional information that you could be tested on and are worth reviewing before tests (if they’re made available).
- If the professor states that something is important or “likely to be on the next test,” make note of it. Otherwise, it’s probably a good idea to focus on what the professor is saying and to not write notes in class. Do your note-taking from the textbook before or after class if you feel it’s necessary. And if you do take notes from your textbook, keep in mind: Your textbook has everything written in it already. It’s much more efficient to simply highlight important parts than rewrite the textbook.
- To save money, before you buy any textbook, always ask your teacher if you need it—in other words, if important material will remain after PowerPoints and handouts. If they do recommend that you buy it, ask if an old version of the textbook is sufficient. And finally, don’t immediately buy textbooks from your school’s bookstore—check Amazon.com first. Books are often available for much cheaper, especially if they’re used. *Search here to have a look:
*Ostrich Canada is a participant in the Amazon.com.ca, Inc. Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.ca.
For some students, our recommendations may not work. That being said, they’re worth a try if you find yourself spending too much time reading and/or if what you’re doing right now isn’t getting you the marks you want. The most important thing is to know your learning style and to choose a technique that gives you the best opportunity to be successful. And if you need extra help to figure out what approach is best for you, be sure to contact your college’s student services department—they typically have good knowledge and additional resources.
Links to More Information
As we said in the “Final Thoughts,” speak with your college’s student services department for additional resources on study-related strategies.
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