How to Study a Textbook

Reading with Clocks best reading strategies

If you did your Workload setup in the Shovel study planner, you know by now that the largest number of tasks you have to do will be readings. They will also take up the majority of your study time.

To build a good study plan, it’s important to know how many readings you have, how many pages each of them represents, and how long you estimate each will take. 

Those may be from a textbook but can come from PDFs or online reading sources as well.

Do  yourself a favor and print off every PDF at the start of each semester. Get them organized into folders and have them accessible when you need them. 

You’ll want to create a task for every reading and get them into Shovel Study planner. For textbook readings, enter the chapter number and the number of pages for each of them. Know how many  pages of PDFs you have to read as well.

How to read a textbook

Never skip a reading. I see some study websites that say that you don’t need to read everything you are assigned. They just think they’ll get it from their class lectures.

I read every single word that was ever assigned to me in college. Law school too. Literally. Every. Single. Word. Not only did I think it might help me get a decent grade, but I actually wanted to learn something for my tuition.

I get that some people, athletes for example, may have so much going on that they just physically can’t read everything, but most people can. 

The main reasons that students skip readings is that they run out of time. If you are following this guide, that won’t happen to you.

Time everything you read

If you want to have an accurate study plan, it’s important to know how long your tasks are going to take. 

That’s not hard to know when it comes to readings. Just time how long they take. It is one of the easiest things to do and the benefits are great. It literally takes seconds.

Just write your start time on the first page and the end time on the last page of the reading. How long did it take? How many pages did you read? Now you know the average time per page for that specific book.

I always had a good estimate of how long my next reading from the same book would take me. As the material getting harder and it took longer, I would adjust my estimates accordingly.

Always highlight a textbook

No matter what you have to read in college, there is one thing for certain—something on that page is going to be on the exam. Sooner or later you’re going to have to revisit that page to study it.

It takes a little extra time, but the best way to make it easier to study is do some good highlighting the first time through.

In high school, kids usually aren’t allowed to highlight their textbooks. In college, you have to. It’s that important.

I know those textbooks are expensive and you want to trade them back in looking like new, but it’s just not worth it. Consider it the cost of success.

Benefits of highlighting

I see a lot of contrary opinions on highlighting. Some think it’s a waste of time and that it really isn’t effective. I couldn’t disagree more. Highlighting does more than just draw attention to important points. It adds value in many ways.

Concentration

It’s often hard to read new and complicated material. When you highlight, it forces you to really concentrate. You can’t just breeze through it daydreaming.

It helps you maintain an intense focus and read with a purpose. You are constantly looking for the most important points and the best ways to abbreviate them.

You will always be asking yourself if this content is likely to appear on the exam and how it might be presented.

You are already preparing for the exam.

Repetition

When highlighting, you’re forced to read the material twice. Often on your first pass, you’ll read the paragraph entirely so you’re clear about what is important. You then go back and highlight only those words that qualify as triggers for what you need to remember. That alone is worth it.

Review

The most important reason to highlight your books is to speed review. This is where hours are saved. If you don’t highlight and isolate the important concepts in your textbook, how do you know what to review for your exam?

This goes double for writing papers. Underline the most important, relevant concepts and it will make finding material for your papers a breeze.

When studying for exams, many students just scan over their textbooks searching for things they don’t know. You don’t have time to do that in college. You could waste literally hundreds of hours during your college career reading and re-reading irrelevant material.

Highlighting by definition will focus you in on only those points that need to be reviewed the most. You’ll automatically ignore the rest.

Do you have to use a highlighter?

Highlighting doesn’t necessarily mean a yellow highlighter. You can also use a pen or pencil too. I always used a mechanical pencil. I recommend pencil because you can’t remove pen or marker.

Often you may start reading and highlighting only to find out that the very best material was in the next paragraph. I also like a pencil because you can write notes, question marks or other comments on a page without stopping.

Less is more

I often see highlighted books where entire paragraphs are yellow. That defeats the purpose. It’s important to try to eliminate the filler from the critical concepts and do it in a way that still makes it readable.

Most books contain way more words than you’ll ever need for
the test. I’m not saying the material isn’t important, because it is. 

However, most words in a paragraph give context—background info, explaining the reasons for something, or setting the stage for the central point that the paragraph is trying to make. Words that lay the foundation.

You’re looking for the triggers—those words and phrases that provide the meat of the concept and help you remember the rest when you need to.

Always ask:

What is most likely to be on the exam?

How do I best summarize by highlighting the minimum words possible.

You can usually pick out the key words and phrases and highlight them to understand and remember the concept.

With practice, you’ll craft whole sentences that make perfect sense using words or even parts of words spread across one or many paragraphs.

There’s an art to pulling the most from the least words and still making it readable. It’s never a perfect process, but the more you do it, the better and faster you’ll get at it every week.

Highlight every page of every textbook. No exceptions.

Understand everything

Reading is good. Understanding is better.

I know this may again be stating the obvious, but I am always amazed by how many people just read past things they don’t really understand. They assume they’ll figure it out later or get it during class.

You need to understand everything you read in college. That includes the definition of every word in every book. Never move ahead until the content is clear.

When I was in college, the first thing I did when I walked into the library was get a dictionary off the shelf and take it to my study table. I literally looked up every single word I didn’t know. You are lucky enough to have a dictionary app right in your phone. Use it.

I’ll say it again. Take the time to do things right the first time through. You don’t want to have to come back and do it later when you are trying to study.

Stay ahead

Reading is the one thing that you can always get as far ahead on  as you want. Take advantage of it. Getting more down now will give you more time to study or do other things later.

Take small bites

Any reading assignment will look a whole lot easier when you break it down into small chunks.

Just focus on reading a little bit at a time. Start early and just get something done. You don’t have to do an entire reading in one session. Reading just a few pages whenever you have time will add up over a day.

Write test questions

Okay, so you’ve read every word. You’ve highlighted the salient points. You understand everything. You’ve cleared up any confusing concepts with your professor.

Do you think any of that material might be on your exam?

Of course it will.

So now, just like with your class notes, it’s time to write some test questions. This is where your highlighting really pays off.

Writing the test questions is one of the most helpful study techniques you can use. Go back over each page of your textbook and look at every highlighted section.

Ask yourself how the professor might ask about this content on the exam and WRITE THE QUESTION DOWN. If you’ve done a good job of highlighting, you’ll have the material pretty well narrowed down already. The question should jump right out at you.

Write the test questions in the margins if you can. Some books might not have room so keep a notebook nearby as you read and have all of your questions in one place.

You can also flip to the back of your class notebook, turn it upside down, and start at the back page. Reference the question to the notes in your notebook.

If you’re typing on a laptop, you can use a flashcard app or create a Test Question document in Google Docs. You can type questions, or better yet, you can just dictate them.

When you are done, you’ll have a solid set of test questions that you can start practicing on. (More on that later).

Writing test questions will both dramatically reduce the time you need to study for the real thing and increase your retention.

Wrap it up

As with everything else that you do, make sure you treat each and every session with your textbook as a single unit that should be completed before you move on.

Read it, understand it, highlight it, and write test questions.

Spend a little time now to save time later.

The time it takes to read, highlight and write test questions will always take a bit longer than if you just read it the normal way. But trust me, it will save you multiples of time later when you’re studying for your exams.

Know what’s ahead

When you’ve finished reading your current assignment, do a quick scan of the pages ahead. Is this new and complicated material? Will it take even more time than you estimated?

Should you start earlier and allow extra time just in case? Your instincts will tell you right away if you can expect problems.

Always look ahead to avoid getting behind. Don’t get caught by surprise.

Back it up

Just like your class notes, you invest a lot of time and effort into reading and highlighting your textbook. You’ve created an extremely valuable asset. What if you lost it? Unlike taking notes in Google Docs, you can’t automatically backup your textbook to the cloud.

Ask yourself: If you lost your textbook today, would that affect your ability to review and get a perfect grade? If you’ve done things right, the answer should be a resounding “Yes.”

I know this may sound anal, but there is nothing wrong with taking a photo of pages and backing them up to the cloud. 

If not, guard that book with your life.

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