Effective Textbook Reading

To read, or not to read, that is the question:

Do I really have to read the book?


The reading assignments that your professors give you to complete, including your textbooks, contain valuable information to better understand the topics in your course. 

Not all the information you need can be presented and discussed during the limited lecture time that you have. 

Reading and reviewing the textbook and other reading materials assigned, BEFORE you get to class, is KEY to your success in fully understanding the topic, the lecture, and being assessed on what you have learned (i.e. tests, quizzes, papers)

SO how do we make sure we get it done???

WE RECOGNIZE that your time is valuable and probably limited.  Not all your time should be spent on long reading assignments, but NOT reading is NOT the answer.  Let us help you get started with some tips below for effective and efficient course reading.

Getting Started

There is no "one size fits all" approach for effective and efficient reading.  Just Google the phrase "reading comprehension techniques" and you will get pages and pages of suggested links, all claiming to be the best for you.  Just like note taking, it's important to develop your own style of textbook reading but here are some great starting points. 


Sometimes, getting started can be difficult, and reading assignments can seem overwhelming.  GOOD NEWS! textbooks were not made to be read cover to cover like a novel.  Textbook reading is a skill that you can get better at as you read more.  Learning what information to focus on is a skill as well.  Not all reading assignments are created equal. 

"Triage" your assignments

Most Important: primary sources like textbooks, handouts, PowerPoint slides, class notes as provided

If you have time: Secondary sources like "suggested" reading, and supplemental reading included in the syllabus or provided by the professor.  These materials will certainly help you understand the material but may not be used during tests and assignments. 

Know your class and divide up your reading

Skimming - (course does not focus much on the readings) pay attention to headings, charts, diagrams, examples, and bold information.  Also, go the the back of the chapter and read the chapter summary and vocab list

Reading - (course focuses heavily on the readings, exam questions and assignments are based on the reading) Read the full chapter and take notes, making sure to answer chapter questions as you go along.

Strategic Reading - (course has a lot of content to cover, competitive degree programs, the reading is fairly well represented on the exams) Utilize one of the reading approaches discussed below for effective reading, that can be retained longer.

Know Why You Are Reading

How you plan and approach your reading will depend on what type of course you are taking and how your professor assesses your learning (i.e. exam, essay, paper).  How well do I need to know the reading assignments? Is it supporting information or are there facts and details that you need to know?  The type of assessment (i.e. test, paper, presentation) that you have to do will determine the kind of information you will need to pull out of the reading.

                              A. Studying for a multiple choice exam - focus on the details of the reading, taking smart concise notes

                                   about the reading and turning them into questions you can quiz yourself on later


                              B. Writing an essay or paper - thoroughly understand the main ideas and summarize those main ideas

                                   into your own words

                              C. Evaluating data in labs (for STEM classes) - focus on details, but also conclusions drawn from the data

                              D. Summarizing research for class presentations and reports - understand the main ideas of the research

                                   and include a few supporting details that directly connect to the main idea.

Be an Active Reader

Textbooks are not meant to be read cover to cover like a novel and reading a chapter does not always mean reading every word.  The chapter covers a topic or topics that the professor has identified as important for you to get more information on a subject.  Take control of your reading, don't be a READING ZOMBIE!

 Active Readers:

  • control their interest level and concentration

  • read with a purpose

  • know what information to look for and why

  • constantly create questions while they read

  • relate the author's ideas to their own experience and prior knowledge      


 Passive Readers:

  • are not in control of their reading

  • lose interest easily and give in to distraction

  • expect the author to engage them and keep their attention

  • often "wake up" in the middle of a paragraph wondering "what did I just read?"             


Are you a textbook zombie???

click to take the quiz

Active reading tools

1. Set a realistic reading goal- don’t try to read all 60 pages at           once! Break up the assignment into 2-3 sessions- for whatever amount of time you can maintain optimum concentration.

2. Read with a purpose- know what you are expected to get out of the assignment.

3. Read with a pen, highlighter, and/or notebook, so you can mark parts of the chapter that answer your questions, suggest possible test questions, explain concepts, or expand on topics covered in class lectures.

4. Review and recite aloud from your notes or marking. Reviewing helps reinforce your learning so that it stays in your memory. Reciting from notes or textbook markings provides another pathway into your memory: the auditory sense. Reciting is especially helpful for those who have an auditory learning preference, but anyone can benefit from it.

Textbook Reading Systems

Textbook reading is a skill!  Like other skills it needs to be worked on and practiced, but you don't have to figure it all out by yourself.  Between educational research and the sharing of best practices there are many ways to approach textbook reading and to find the way you read and learn best. 

Always do what works best for you, but if following systems is your thing there have been many active reading systems developed by education professionals and philosophers.  Although reading systems differ slightly the main points of reading and retention are consistent within all of them.  One of the most recognized reading retention systems is the SQ3R system...read about it below. 


SQ3R is a reading strategy that is broken up into parts so that students are able to read and retain materials more effectively.  Some view reading systems as cumbersome but they don't have to be.  Systems are just routines, ways of doing things with consistency.    

S: Survey/Skim
    Spend 2-3 minutes surveying the text, how long is the chapter, what is the topic, look for pictures, charts, graphs, and captions and begin to pre-read the text.  This primes the brain for what you are about to read and allows you to determine if you already know something about the topic.
Q: Question
    Students look at headings and subheading and make them into questions that they will answer while reading the text.  Many texts have questions built right into the chapters or at the end.
R: Read
    Students begin reading with the questions they created near by.  They take notes, highlight and answer the questions.  While reading they take notes looking closely at any bold, underlined or italicized words.
R: Recite
    Students summarize each part in their own words.  They can also talk to themselves, out loud, about what they just read, or try to teach it to someone else.
R: Review
    The review process takes place at periodic times before the test.  Each day the student does a different study method with the material they read and took notes on.  For example on day one they could make flash cards, answer questions by putting them into their own words or taking notes in their own words.  


Professors still rely primarily on textbooks for students to acquire knowledge and there is a lot of information in textbooks.  SQ3R helps create a plan for all textbook reading .

Marking Your Textbooks

**Some information from this section also appears under Note-Taking

Look Familiar?

Marking your textbooks by underlining, highlighting and by taking notes improves your concentration for two reasons: it focuses your attention on the task of reading, and it provides a tactile pathway to the brain.  It also helps you to summarize all of that information


You must think critically about what you read so that you can make decisions about what to underline, highlight, or note.


When done effectively, marking your textbook saves time by providing you with specific info. to review so that you do not have to re-read a whole chapter to study for a test.

If your notes look like a rainbow has been strewn across the page then you’re probably overdoing it.

Using a Highlighting System

  • You want to make sure that the notes you are taking will work for you come study time. Do you feel like your pages become a sea of yellow highlighter?

  • Create a highlighting system for taking notes in your text or notebook notes, each color representing something different, and stay consistent.  This is going to allow you to organize the information you are learning and easily locate the important content when reviewing before class, finding info. for class discussions, and even for writing a paper about the reading.

Using Post-it Notes

  • As you read, be sure to take pauses and write down quick summaries of what the paragraph is about (key facts, people, and overall idea).

  • This technique is beneficial for individuals who are renting their textbooks and cannot write or highlight with more than one color.

  • This can also be helpful for open book tests. If you create tabs and put in your own notes/summaries of the content, it will help make your testing or review experience more effective.

Writing in the Margin

  • This is a great way to test your comprehension of what you’re reading paragraph by paragraph. In the margin next to the paragraph, write a quick blurb about what the section is about.

  • ​It is very important to be able to make sure that you are understanding what you are reading and not just letting your eyes gloss over the pages. If you can see how the material connects to the other information in the book and also can paraphrase what the paragraph/chapter is about, it means that you are understanding the content.

  • Before you go to class, skim over your margin notes to jog your memory.

Using Flash Cards

  • Write down key concepts/explanation, terms/definition, system/parts of the system, etc. for quick and continuous material to review.

  • By writing it down you review the material you need to learn in a different way and that can be easily reviewed anywhere.

  • Can be useful to have others quiz you on content, can be great for memorizing definitions and key facts, and for quick review before an exam. 

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