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Education Productivity

How to Actually Read Textbooks Effectively

“To be better equipped for the tests that the year will bring — read a textbook. To prepare for the tests that life will bring — read a book.”

Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Textbooks are not the same as the every day books that people read.

The Fundamentals of Chemical Engineering was a very different read than Man’s Search for Meaning. Textbooks require different methods of consumption. Since they’re are mostly filled with factual information that we are expected to understand and regurtitage, they can seem like a giant ball of chaos. This is a huge part of the reason why we don’t like reading them in the first place.

In my past blog posts, I talk extensively about the human mind and a multitude of theories describing how it works. A commonality in these posts and the writings of others I have read suggest that people are purpose oriented creatures. We need a clear purpose in front of us when we are reading textbooks. What stops people from reading textbooks is the ambiguous nature of it. Looking at a 1000+ page book with the intention of “learning everything” is too unclear and pushes us towards not doing anything at all.

We need a clear purpose when we are reading the books. This helps us articulate exactly what we are trying to learn. We can create purposeful and intentional reading by scanning the textbook before hand.

A Specific Method for Scanning Textbooks

This video is a fantastic resource for understanding efficient textbook consumption:

Here are some of the highlights from it.

Matt DiMaio suggests that students should flip through and scan each page so they can receive an overview on what is coming. This gives us our minds purpose when we flip through these pages.

We see unfamiliar images and phrases which will stick out to us as landmarks of recognition. The best way to maximize the results of method is to keep an eye out for things you don’t understand and lean into the questions that come to mind when we first see them.

Another key to reading textbooks efficiently is to skip to the End-Quiz. This lets us know exactly what to look for. Doing this right after an initial scan is the best time to read the end quiz questions because we have a small idea of what this chapter would be about, but we don’t know enough to know what to keep an eye out for. Reading the quiz before reading the actual chapter helps bridge this gap. Seeing the questions at the end provides a deeper level of articulation when it comes to our purpose when reading this chapter.

By this point, we should have two sets of questions bouncing around in our heads – one set that we created from our initial scan and the second are the questions at the end of the chapter.

If the chapter doesn’t have end of the chapter questions, there is most likely going to be a summary of the main points. These can also be turned into questions that could be answered. The idea is to keep developing questions that YOU genuinely want to know the answer to. This helps keeps our mind engaged when we are going through the text. There’s no substitute for genuine curiosity.

The next suggestion Matt DiMaio makes is to read the bold print because the information has already been broken down for you. The author(s) of the textbook (more often than not) layout the concepts in smaller chunks which usually come together to build a solid and thorough understanding of the overall concept. The bolded print keeps the information organized and are usually highlighting an important idea necessary for understanding the concept as a whole.

After, read the first and last sentence in a paragraph. The first sentence is usually an introduction and the last a conclusion. This is to get a quick, but slightly deeper understanding of the idea and it’s components. You get the jist of it but this point.

This method takes more time than just reading the chapter in one go, but it’s way more effective. During each of these stages, our brain is developing more and more questions which it will consciously and subconsciously look for. This helps us stay more engaged with the text, but is also in line with Active Recall, which is the most efficient learning method we currently accept.

Scanning doesn’t have to take more than 5 minutes and should be done before any intense reading happens. Students should almost never be reading textbooks cover to cover like we would novels. People are purpose driven creatures and firstly we need to know what we’re looking for. Scanning provides purpose when reading. Scanning a chapter multiple times will prime our brains perfectly for effective textbook consumption. Don’t shy away from repetition.

Repetition is the mother of learning.

3 Main Goals of Reading

Sometimes when I see people study for huge exams or quizzes, they will bust out their textbook and just start reading. Not only does this requires extreme amounts of cognitive load, but it’s also terribly ineffective. We are purpose driven creatures and just reading a textbook with the intention of “learning everything” is a slow moving trainwreck.

Here are 3 main goals we should keep in mind when we are reading textbooks:

1) Getting the correct information – we want to make sure we are reading the information that we are actually responsible for knowing. I can’t tell you how many test I’ve studied for that had completely different content than what I was studying. We want to know the right stuff.

2) Retaining that information – when we find this information, we want to make sure that we can remember it! We want to be able to remember it easily and over the long term, otherwise our efforts are wasted.

3) Spending less time – because honestly reading textbooks can be a drag and our time is usually better spent doing the things we’d rather do.

A Quick Tip on Goal Setting

These goals are assuming we agree with the fundamental axiom that there are ways to get better results with less effort. Now I can focus my energy on studying better, instead of trying to convince myself that there are better ways to read textbooks. I try to create goals with underlying assumptions that remove obstacles and push me forward. It’s a nice way of tricking our brain into getting things done.

Another example is what I do with these blog posts. My goal is to improve my blog posts at least 1% every week – that goal is created with the underlying assumption that I will be putting out a blog post every week. Now I’m not focused on just trying to get myself to write, that will come as a byproduct of focusing on improving the overall blog every week.

Methods to Test Comprehension

Reading textbooks out of order seems like a sure fire way to misunderstand the text. However, it’s actually more effective as long as we test our comprehension. Here are a few ways of testing yourself to make sure that you actually understand the key bits of information.

Answer all the Questions Included in the Chapter

Like I mentioned earlier, most textbook chapters have end of the chapter multiple choice quizzes. These are excellent active recall resources and a fantastic way to test your understanding of the key points.

Sometimes a textbook will include practice MCQs sprinkled throughout the chapter. This idea doesn’t just stop with multiple choice questions, they can apply to free response questions as well.

Write Out the Main Ideas in Your Own Words

Jordan Peterson said articulation is the deepest levels of understanding. First, we act out what we understand. The next level is thinking about what we understand. The deepest level is saying or writing it so another person can also understand the information. I should probably write a blog post on the different levels of understanding. When we write something down in our own words, we are forced to confront exactly what we know and what we don’t, which is a fantastic way of testing our understanding.

Evaluate When the Text was Published

The meaning in writing, no matter what kind, is nested in the words and pages of the text. But the text is also nested in its relation to everything else around it. The dominating thoughts of the times determine which ideas are presented and in what manner.

If the text is slightly outdated, it may fail to take into account new and precedent-breaking research. Questioning the text also key in testing understanding. Here are some questions you can start with:

Why are these ideas being presented in this order?

Is there anything included in the text that may have overlooked?

Questioning things naturally gives us deeper understandings. Shallow answers provide an opportunity to breed suffering and should rarely be accepted.

Summarize to Teach

This is a bite off the Feynman Technique. The idea is to summarize the material so a 5 year old can understand it. Try not to use any specialized jargon and address any questions that a 5 year old may ask when presented with the summary you write. When we teach, we put ourselves in the role of expert and our identity gets tied up with knowing the information thoroughly.

Explaining something at the level a 5 year old can understand is not a demonstration of simplified knowledge, but masterful understanding. True masters know what information to leave out so their pupil can best understand with their current frameworks of the world.

Practice Active Reading Over Passive Reading

I’m sure it seems like I’ve beaten this dead horse plenty, but I can’t stress this enough. Active Recall and Spaced Repetition are the two biggest pillars of studying less while learning more, and we would be foolish to not integrate that into how we read.

Instead of just reading line after line, we can engage with the text through the different methods of scanning outlined earlier or practicing these Methods to Test Comprehension. Keeping our brain active in the process, not only makes the learning more efficient, but keeps us interested and happy.

A good study session can be like being engaged in an enlightening conversation, it doesn’t have to be dull.

Determine the Focus

When you are reading it is important to know what kind of reading you will be doing. There are two main types of reading in this case, reading for main concepts or reading for details.

Are you reading to understand main concepts or details?

I recommend treating the main concepts like a framework for the big picture and the details as things we hang on the frame. Learn main concepts first, then fill in the blanks with the details.

Other Techniques for Effective Reading

A majority of these tips came from the notes I took while watching Marty Lobdell’s famous lecture on studying smart. You can watch the video for yourself here – but keep in mind, it’s an hour long.

If you don’t have time to check it out, don’t fret, I tried to include most of the value from this video in this blog post.

Do a Pomodoro Session, then Do Something Fun or Go Away

I talk about breaking up our work into smaller chunks all the time. Working for 25-30 minutes on a task, then walking away makes the task much easier to initiate. The reward makes us more likely to do it again! I go more in depth about the pomodoro technique and its modifications in this post. The main idea is to just break up the work into manageable time intervals. This is how I get all my blog posts done!

Reward Yourself After Finishing Your Entire Day

Do this not only because the reward is so much sweeter after finishing a day of work, but because it makes it easier for us to start again next time. If we know that we’re going to get a reward at the end, we can’t wait to get it done! Rewarding ourselves also solidifies all the newer neural pathways created in that session. Additionally, it prevents burnout and we ought to treat ourselves as people we are responsible for. If we committed a dog to a whole day of work, we would want to reward it afterwards for doing so well. We should give ourselves the same encouragement. We’ll die without it.

Study Concepts First, then Study Facts

I talk about this in my Strategies for Better Studying (Part 3) post and touched upon it earlier too. Studying just pure facts is impossibly difficult and we will never retain any information without tremendous effort. If we learn the concepts and understand how the facts fit into the bigger picture, then it is much easier to remember more facts with less effort. Create a framework of understanding, then hang the facts on the framework.

Highlight the Important Terms, but with Caution

I try not to highlight if possible. I layout some of the disadvantages to highlighting in [this post]. Highlighting triples our workload and increases the likelihood of focusing on lower yield information. If you find yourself in a situation where you must absolutely highlight, keep it at a minimum. Whatever is highlighted is considered important. When we highlight too much, we destroy prioritization. Not all information was made equal.

Our Brain is Better at Recognizing than Recalling

This is why Active Recall is such a powerful method of learning. The heightened difficulty of recalling information trains our brain more powerfully than simple recognition.

This is also why I suggest we scan our textbooks in the method laid out above. When we scan, we create points of recognition that allow us to hang the facts and intricate details of the information.

Flesh Out Notes to Solidify New Concepts

Right when we finish reading or get out of a lecture, we have an unstable understanding of the new concepts we’ve just learned. This is partly because we have very limited access to the information in terms of neural connections. With more neural connections, recalling specific information gets easier and easier.

Fleshing out our notes helps solidifies concepts in our mind, especially if they are a little fuzzy. The expansion gives us multiple neural points of connection, which allows for easier recall in the future. If fleshing the concepts out on your own is beyond your ZPD, I recommend comparing notes with a friend or discussing the topic with the professor in office hours.

Use Mnemonics to Memorize

Memorizing sucks and it’s nearly impossible to memorize random facts without connecting them to something else that we already understand. One of the best ways to memorize is to use mnemonics, little devices designed to help with remembering patterns or associations.

One version of a mnemonics are acronyms. Not to be confused with initialisms (which can be great mnemonics too), acronyms are words or names formed from the initial parts of a bigger name. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is pronounced like a word, but stands for a larger name.

One of my favorite acronyms are used for remembering the colors of a rainbow – ROY G. BIV. It sounds like the name of a man, but it stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indego, and violet.

Another type of mnemonic devices are coined sayings. These are crazy phrases used similarly to acronyms. One of my favorite coined sayings is for memorizing the Krebs Cycle intermediates is “Can I Keep Selling Sex for Money Officer?”

C – citrate I – isocitrate K – a-ketoglutarate S – succinyl CoA S – succinate F – fumarate M – malate O – oxaloacetate

It’s easy to remember because it’s about sex. The more sexual, vulgar, and ridiculous are, the easier they are to remember. So don’t be afraid to get a little crazy.

The last type of mnemonic that I’m going to talk about here are image associations. Some people also refer to this as the “Mental Mind Palace” or the “method of loci.” The main idea is to picture a place that we are extremely familiar with, like our home for example, and place the different bits of information in places across your house.

This sounds a little woowoo, but the core of this method is to connect our familiar environment as triggers of recognition to the information that we want to memorize. This works wonders for some people and not so well for others. I wouldn’t recommend this method over the other ones, but what is powerful is knowing that we can associate any information we want with images.

Using images to solidify a concept in our minds is powerful because the human brain is mainly designed to function around sight. We are relatively visual creatures and using visualization to enhance memory is like a cheat code. Similar to coin sayings, the more sexual, vulgar, and ridiculous the image is, the easier is will be to remember.


Reading is like working out. It takes time to get better at it. Reading a textbook is like learning how to work out a specific part of your body. Stick with it. All principles regarding skill building also apply here too, so things like The Valley of Disappointment, The Transition Curve, and The 20 Hour Rule are also at play. See each reading session as a practice in developing the “textbook reading” skill.