10 ways to read a textbook (and actually get something out of it)
“I don’t call them books. I call them ‘fuel units’.” – Tai Lopez
So you’ve just got your hands on StudyTime’s Level 3 Biology walkthrough guide, and you’re about to begin your journey of scientific enlightenment and walk the path of Excellence.
Fortunately for you, StudyTime guides are perfectly written for students by a team of young minds, whose banter is rivalled only by their content knowledge; but this is not always the case.
Trudging your way through a textbook so overly huge and circumlocutory (that means pretentious) is not only definitely the reason for your poor posture, it can make for a really monotonous read. This is bad for your enjoyment, your comprehension, and your learning.
Fortunately, we’ve comprised ten research-based tips for how to get better at reading textbooks or study guides, because those things are with you for life.
1. The SQ3R Method
You know a study skill is legit when it’s got it’s own wikipedia page. Created by an educational psychologist in 1946, SQ3R is a technique to improve focus, engagement, and comprehension through active reading (reading with a purpose and doing something with the content). There’s five steps:
1. Skim: Quickly go through the page/chapter/article and focus on the headings, sub-headings, examples, bold writing, basically anything that will give you an understanding of what the “bigger picture” of the text is.
2. Question: Using what you found, try and come up with some questions that you think the textbook wants you to answer or what you want to learn from it, such as “What is this chapter about?” or “How will this help me in the exam?”
3. Read: Read with the purpose of answering those questions (and with tip 2 below!)
4. Recite: When you find yourself connecting the dots and picking up new knowledge, explain it in your own words as if you were teaching someone who was asking those questions.
5. Review: After finishing the reading, ask yourself what the purpose of all of that was.
2. Take notes in the margins
Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you’re borrowing the textbook from your school library – the only thing you should be doing to those is drawing moustaches on the pictures, otherwise it’s technically defacing school property.
If not, then taking notes in the margins when you read is a surprisingly awesome way of making it more focused, productive, and active.
It’s something that Bill Gates does, and he’s super rich. Take it from StudyTime (this is incredibly helpful at uni): adding little notes keeps you engaged with the task, and it also makes it look super smart (think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince).
3. Use intervals
Interval training is something people do at the gym that makes them do more burpees, and the same thing can apply to studying.
When there’s a task ahead of us that our brain finds daunting, because it’s boring or challenging, our primal instinct is to put it off to save ourselves from the pain: we procrastinate.
Breaking what you have to read up into small blocks (like a page, or 5 minutes of reading, etc.) with short breaks in between makes the task way easier, which is great at building a consistently good habit.
4. The Pomodoro Technique
If you don’t want to use really short intervals, or you want to combine them with another method of reducing study anxiety, the Pomodoro technique is a sick way of getting stuff done.
Neuroscience research has mapped our ability to consistently focus, which dips after around 30 minutes.
As such, the Pomodoro technique uses 25 minute study blocks with 5 minute breaks, optimising our productivity – and is a useful way of getting through your textbook.
5. Parkinson’s Law
It’s an actual neurological phenomenon that the amount of work we have to do stretches to fit the amount of time we give to do it.
If a chapter can be read in 45 minutes, we can either read it in 45 minutes, or we can give ourselves the week and “eventually get around to it”.
The longer we leave a task undone, the more daunting it is, and the more we procrastinate.
Make it easier for yourself: give yourself the amount of time it would take you to read a part of the textbook if you really focused, and do it in that time (challenge yourself).
6. Define key terms
‘Subject literacy’ means how well you understand and can apply the subject-specific terminology, and this is fundamental for learning new concepts when you read.
How are you supposed to learn about mitosis’ role in creating two nuclei if you don’t know what nuclei are, or your definition isn’t entirely accurate?
This is also true when the textbook uses really old-fashioned or unnecessarily confusing language, which is unfortunately common (these aren’t problems with StudyTime walkthrough guides, of course).
When you read a word you’re not quite sure about, or want to check if you’ve got down-pat, quickly look it up and even post-note it in the margin, and test yourself on it later.
That way, you’ll understand what the reading is on about and improve your vocab. You’ll also be working out where all the crucial gaps in your knowledge – and filling them.
7. Figure out the purpose
We touched on this in tip 1, but it’s important so I’ll say it again. Before and after you’ve read a certain amount, try and figure out what the purpose of the chapter/article is.
Why has your teacher given this to you? What are the key things the author wants you to learn? This is going to help you contextualise the information.
Our brain stores things better when it understands the context (for example, memorising the letters GNCKDE vs. memorising the letters JORDAN).
You can use this to your advantage by figuring out what the ‘bigger picture’ is, and connecting the dots as you read certain points.
In your mind, it’s all going to help you piece together the puzzle, which you’re going to remember easier, and be able to recall stuff when you need it.
Instead of “What did I read in pages 37-51 of that classics textbook?”, you can ask “In that chapter about why Alexander is called ‘the Great’, where the author talked about his amazing military skills, what were some examples of battles?”
8. Don’t memorise – fantasise
Our brain can store and recall knowledge easier if we give it not only some context, but some imagination – adding a visual aspect to what you’re reading will help you visualise it in the exam, which is going to make it way easier to remember why you gave it that picture.
For example, if you were studying how the hippocampus’ role in the brain is to store information as long-term memories, you could picture an actual hippo in camping gear putting books on shelves in your brain’s library.
Sounds like some “learning is fun” fake news from your 70 year old teacher who still can’t work her iPhone, right?
Try it for yourself and then get back to us.
9. Get your dopamine hit
Your brain loves achieving tasks, and it tells you this by releasing dopamine; this is why ticking something off your to-do list feels good.
Instead of tracking your reading progress using a time-based mindset, switch it to goal-based.
Give yourself little goals, like reading a page at a time, reading for 25 minutes, or learning about one of Alexander the Great’s battles. Remember when you’re making progress.
10. Make it aesthetic
There’s no two ways around it: reading a textbook or study guide can be a challenge.
All of these skills are going to seriously help you with getting the most out of it, but anything you can do to get pumped or make it enjoyable will help too.
It’s a fact that buying some cool new workout clothes or running shoes is great motivation for hitting the gym, and the same thing applies with studying!
Getting your hands on some highlighters and adding some art to your textbook can be oddly satisfying, and we all know the power of an aesthetic study space.
There you go: here’s how to read like a boss. Obviously, none of these apply if you’ve got our walkthrough guides. Hehe.