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.

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Education Productivity

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 1)

“All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we much think them over again honestly, until they take root in our personal experience.”

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

In light of my last post, Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, I want to go over different study methods that can be used with those principles in mind. Proven study methods used in conjunction with active recall and spaced repetition is the winning formula for any student looking to get better grades with less work and stress. It doesn’t matter which method you use, as long as the principles are being practiced. Pick the a strategy, combine it with another, modify it so it can fit your needs. I want my students to have an arsenal of methods to so they can design their own perfectly personalized study system. Over the next 4 weeks, I’m going to explore some of the most popular study methods that we can use to chop up, modify, and customize.

The Pomodoro Technique and its Modification

You may or may not be familiar with the word Pomodoro, but it’s Italian for tomato. I’ve been watching an absurd amount of The Sopranos lately, so I figured it would be appropriate to start with the Italian themed strategy. Now, I know what you’re thinking..

What do tomatoes have to do with studying?

Absolutely nothing. Pomodoro was the name of the tomato shaped timer that Francesco Cirillo used when he developed this technique!

Feast Your Eyes

The Pomodoro technique can be executed in 7 fairly simple steps:

  1. Clearly articulating what task needs to be done
  2. Setting a pomodoro timer (or any timer) to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task without interruption for the 25 minutes
  4. Take a break for 3-5 minutes
  5. Repeat Steps 2 through 4 at least 4 times
  6. Take a longer 15-30 minute break
  7. Repeat as many times as needed

Each work interval of 25 minutes is commonly known as a Pomodoro. Do 4-5 pomodoros then take a long break. I use this method all the time just to get started! For me, starting something is usually the hardest part. My brain doesn’t like the idea of sitting down and working on something for hours, but when I practice the pomodoro technique, it’s much easier to get the ball rolling if I think I’m only going to be working on this for 25 minutes.

Using the Pomodoro Technique is a really great strategy and you will get tons of work done if it’s executed properly, but I find that I get my best work done when I’ve been working on something for hours uninterrupted and the Pomodoro Technique inherently comes with interruptions. So what I do is modify the technique to fit my own personal needs. If I’m feeling like it, I’ll use this technique the way it was designed but more often than not I just use it as a catalyst to begin my work flow.

In all honesty, I have an incredibly difficult time sitting down and writing for hours or producing for hours but over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at negotiating with myself to get things done. One of the deals I make with myself constantly is just do 1 pomodoro then you can play video games. Sometimes I work the 25 minutes and go play my video games, but most of the time I ride the momentum that I build during that first pomodoro and get shit done. When I make this deal with myself, I end up being more focused too. Getting my work done is important to me, so knowing that I only have this limited time to get it done helps me stay focused. There’s something about having a short time line that gets us out of our own way. The best part of that discovery is being able to trick our minds into getting out of its own way.

The pomodoro technique is effective because it works under the assumption that we get our best work done within the first 25 or so minutes of beginning. It’s easy to come to this conclusion, if we examine our productivity as a function of attention span. I view my attention span as a period of time which I can voluntarily focus on something without suffering or wanting to do something else. There are certain days and conditions that contribute to a longer attention span, but on average my attention span is about an hour. There are been times when I really developed myself in this domain and I got it up to 3 hours but there have also been times in my life when I let it drop to 10 minutes. There’s no shame or ought when it comes to attention span, but I think it is something we should take into account when we are designing systems to optimize our learning capacity. Rather than define a pomodoro as 25 minutes, I define a pomodoro as equal to my attention span at the time. It’s useless to sit down and stare at your paper if the only purpose is to wait out a pomodoro session. Adjust the length of each session and you have a game plan that works best for you, but that leave us with the question:

How do we know how long our attention span is?

So there are ways to determine an attention span, but what I find best is to just start a timer whenever you start a project and whenever you feel the desire to seek out different stimulation or take a break stop the timer. I spent a day and timed my attention span (and because I’m a total math nerd) I averaged it out and defined that as my pomodoro. Nowadays, my pomodoros last about an hour, but on days when I’m not feeling up to it I make them as low as 10 minutes. This is a great technique to bang out loads of work and overcome that high activation energy required to get started.

The Feynman Technique

I’ve mentioned this technique in earlier posts, Active Recall and Note-Taking, and it’s fairly simple. The Feynman Technique is based on the idea that we truly understand something if we can explain it in simple terms. When I first started tutoring, I wasn’t aware of all the different learning and studying theories but I noticed that I was gaining a deep understanding of math quicker and faster than my students. At first I thought it was strictly a function of time. Since I’m doing math more often than them, I’m improving faster than them. But I’ve always felt like there was a bigger reason and it is because I was constantly explaining complex ideas in a simple way. This exercise 1) forces me to find any holes in my knowledge and 2) is an excellent active recall technique. If I’m explaining something that I don’t have a deep understanding of, then I’ll stumble while I try to explain these topics. I’ll take note of that stumble and fill that little knowledge pothole, so next time I run the neural pathway it’ll be smooth.

If you don’t have another person to explain it to, try writing it down in simple terms and reading it after some time has passed. It takes more effort, so it may actually be more effective. Explaining concepts to other people, especially students, gives an opponent processing benefit but writing it out and reading it back to yourself is an excellent test for understanding.

Incorporate Concepts into Everyday Speech

This is one of those things I’m always doing without people knowing. By sliding these new concepts into conversations with people helps with firing the neurons connected to the concepts you’re interested in. I tend to look like a nerd, but I don’t mind because I get my recall in. Additionally, using the information in a creative way helps with retention.

Most people usually don’t see conversations as a creative, but they are! We are creating conversation and humans live in conversation. Our environments are results of our conversations and by injecting our concepts into our speech, we build the concepts right into our fabric of reality. The idea of speech being one of our superpowers is an old one and definitely deserves it’s own time in the sun, but I’ll just leave this tip here. Incorporating our newly found knowledge into our everyday speech is a solid strategy to get those neural pathways fired and help with knowledge retention.

Simulate the Test Environment

For a while many of my students would do fantastic when I’m working with them, but when it comes to taking the test they end up failing! They understood the material fine and whenever I’d ask them what they think happened they tell me that they forget everything when they’re under pressure. This problem drove me crazy for a long time, until I took a deep dive into the human mind to understand.

Our minds are constantly making associations and we perceive the world on so many different levels. I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series for those interested in diving deep into why that is. Our minds and bodies are navigating space and time constantly fluctuating between order and chaos. The world of what we already understand and the world of what we don’t. When we’re in the world of order, we aren’t anxious and can predict the outcome of our actions. When we’re taking a test, it’s much more comfortable to operate in the world of order. However, taking a test in a classroom is different than taking a test at home.

While it seems like the same thing, the test in a classroom environment is unfamiliar to the parts of ourselves that are adapted to the test in a home environment. The unfamiliarity causes us to activate the parts of us that navigate the world of chaos and that part of us may not be equipped to handle the questions on the test. This is why many students, including myself, don’t perform as well on tests than we do while we’re practicing. The solution to this problem is to simulate the test environment as much as possible while studying. The small associations we make while learning (or studying) the material can act as cues when we are trying to recall the information later. That’s why my students do better when practicing math with me. We usually practice in the same place, so their minds are associating their work with myself as well as the environment around us. Those minor associations make the recall significantly easier!

Back in high school, I noticed that my calculus skills were much better when I was in my math class but I didn’t know why. Today, my math skills are much better when I’m at a student’s home or in the tutoring center. I’m not as math savvy in my personal life.

“No Stakes” Practice

Every since I was a kid, I’ve always liked the idea of practicing something with no serious consequences. (Probably because life tends to be unwavering about consequences.) The opportunity to be a n00b is powerful because it frees us up. It gives us the freedom to make mistakes, and mistakes light the path to mastery. When we’re free to make mistakes, we’re free to learn. I talk more about this is my The Power of Failure post. Not to brag, but I’m constantly told that I make difficult academic subjects easy not because I explain things well, but because I have a relaxed attitude about it. I was so surprised when I first heard this, but after reflecting on it for a while it made complete sense. Once my students understood that nothing bad really happens if they make mistakes, they are more willing to give things a try. In those attempts, mistakes would inevitably be made but they would learn from every single one.

When we try something new, or if we’re trying to improve a skill, we should allow ourselves “No Stakes” practice. Trial runs with nothing at stake tend to carry high yield lessons. I don’t just try this strategy when I’m studying, although it is fantastic for it, I also use it when I draft blog posts and make music. I give myself a “no stakes” pomodoro, so I have a definite time when I can stop making trash but that time is crucial because I edit that trash into most of the creative projects I put out. I freedom to make mistakes is priceless, don’t underestimate the value of “no stakes” practice.