Reading a Textbook 7/31/19

By Richard Bleil

Nine years of primary school (kindergarten through eighth), four years of secondary school (despite the rumors), four years of college (kind of rare these days, but it used to be bachelor’s degrees took four years), five years of graduate school (very quick for a doctorate). Post docs at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Purdue University, and a visiting scientist position at Harvard University. Twenty four years of education and research, and it wasn’t until my first teaching gig when a colleague finally taught me the proper way to read a textbook.

If you’re reading this, you know how to read. However, reading a textbook is different from reading a story or book (or a blog post), because the purpose of the writing is different. See, a textbook is not trying to convey a story, which is typically a connected series of events (usually but not always chronologically) to reach an endpoint and/or conclusion. In a textbook, the point is to convey information, preferably as compactly as possible so as to convey the maximum amount of information in the smallest possible book.

So the proper way to read a textbook is to read each chapter maybe five to seven times.

“Uh, really?!?”

Yes, really, but how you read it makes a difference. Never try to read a textbook word for word; it’ll be boring, your mind will wander, and you won’t get much out of it. Before the topic is discussed in class, begin by going through the chapter, reading only the titles of each section. Just read the titles. That won’t take long, and you’ve been through it once. Reading the titles gets you an idea of what the chapter is about, but be careful; sometimes the titles can be misleading. All they’re talking about is what will be in the section, so make no inferences. I had a student argue with me, vehemently, about a point he lost in his exam. The question dealt with things that do and do not affect solubility (how much solute, or substance, you can dissolve in a given amount of solvent, or liquid). Stirring, as it turns out, does not affect the amount of solute that can dissolve, although it seems as though it can because it speeds up the rate of dissolution. In the textbook, the main title was “Factors that Affect Solubility”, and one of the subheadings was “Stirring”. He argued this should have won him the point, despite the fact that the very first sentence in that section read, “Stirring has no effect on solubility”. He assumed a meaning, when in fact all the title meant was that the book will discuss, in that section stirring.

Once you’ve flipped through the chapter and read the headings, go through it a second time and look at the pictures and read the captions if appropriate. Science books tend to have many figures and graphs. Now you have been through the chapter twice, it hasn’t taken much time, and you know what the upcoming chapter is about. There should be no surprises when it’s covered in class, but, before class, you should read the chapter a third time.

You are very bright. You’re reading blog posts that are sophisticated, smart and written by a man whose brilliance is only second to his grand humility. (Yes, that was a joke.) As you are very smart, you should be seeing a pattern here, a pattern where each pass is quick, builds familiarity, and goes a little bit deeper each time.

Grab a marker, and for the third pass, read just the first line of each paragraph. Maybe you’ll remember, and maybe not, but the proper way to construct a paragraph is with a minimum of three sentences (and, no, I don’t follow this in my posts). The first sentence is designed to tell the reader what you will tell them in the paragraph. In the middle, you tell the reader, and in the final sentence you tell the reader what you told them, and set up the next paragraph. That means the key point is in the first sentence of the paragraph, just as it was in the solubility example above. Highlight the important stuff, and you’re ready for class.

Now, when you go to class, you’ve read the pertinent chapter three times already. This means that when the professor lectures, it will sound familiar. One of the most difficult blocks to learning is not understanding, but rather lack of familiarity. If something doesn’t sound familiar, the student will have a very difficult time making sense of it. Now, as the professor lectures, take notes, but be sure the are YOUR notes, not the notes of the professor. If you only write what the professor writes (on the board, on the presentation, etc.) then they are the professor’s notes, not yours. As you interpret what the professor says, write down what you take away from the lecture, not what is written down. When I taught, what I wrote was secondary; what I said in class was more important than what I was writing down. The reason is quite simple; I wanted my students to pay attention to me, not the writing. Take your own notes.

After lecture, read the textbook a fourth time. This time, read the meat of each chapter. Here you will find the details, the explanations, and the examples. Be sure to continue highlighting in this pass. By the fourth pass, you have completed the reading, but…there remains one more pass.

Finally, to maximize your understanding, go through the chapter one more time, next to the notes from class, and merge them. That’s right, another entire set of notes, this time drawing from both the textbook, the lecture, and your own understanding of the material.

And there you go. Just in time for the upcoming academic year. Now, you know you are capable, you know you are ready, go kick ass. You got this.

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