How to Study a Textbook (Learn to Read a Textbook & Take Notes)

How to Study a Textbook

Reading with Clocks best reading strategies

Increase your comprehension and retention

If you did your Workload setup in the Shovel study planner, you probably know by now that you’re going to do a lot of readings in college. When you look at your syllabus, the largest number of tasks you have to do will be readings. They will also take up the majority of your study time.

When I was in college, readings were always just from a textbook. Today they can come from PDFs or online reading sources as well.

Your readings are the foundation of every class. Every lecture, every paper, every project, every exam will be based on them.

In Know Your Workload I talked about how important it is to really understand the reading that you are going to have to do. By that I mean the number, the types, the level of difficulty, and the time that all of these is going to take each week.

It’s easy to look in a textbook to see how long a reading is and also see the layout and complexity. Not so much with a PDF.

Here’s a suggestion:

Print off all of your PDFs as soon as you can. Seriously. Print them off and put them in a folder and have them read to go when you need them.

You don’t want to have to mess with printing them later when I need them.

You when you are building your study plan you want to know how each PDF is formatted and how long it is. Print each of them off and go through them one by one just like you did with your textbook readings.

On each one, write down the number of pages in the upper corner. Look at the formatting and text size. Is it similar to others or do you need to create a new reading source in Shovel to estimate time.

Does it look complicated? Are there a lot of formulas or other content that you aren’t familiar with.

I don’t like surprises and neither should you. Know the quantity and difficulty of every reading way before you have to do it.

Also, you want to have a paper copy in front of you. You’ll want to highlight, write notes, mark where you have questions. It’s not as easy to do that online. Treat your PDF just like a textbook chapter.

How to read a textbook

Brief Dad’s Rant.

Reading everything sounds ridiculously obvious, but it’s amazing how many students don’t read everything in their textbooks. They just think they’ll get it from their class lectures.

I see other study sites that say that you shouldn’t, can’t, or won’t be able to read everything you are assigned.

I get that some people, athletes for example, may have so much going on that they just physically can’t read everything. Most people can and should. Deliberately skipping a reading that you have time to get done is idiocy.

I just don’t get for the life of me why so many students work so hard to get into a college, pay those huge tuitions, and then work equally hard trying to do as little as they can. It’s completely bizarre.

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 money—and I wasn’t even paying it myself.

If you’re a student who is just trying to get by, you are only cheating yourself. Have some passion for really learning. Open the book and read it all. Cutting corners is for losers.

Dad’s rant over.Ok, where was I.

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.

The beauty of the Shovel app is that you can plan all of your readings well in advance and make a pretty good estimate of how long they are going to take.

Time everything you read

I covered this earlier but I want to repeat it again here. Time your readings. 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 to know how long each reading took you to do for each particular book.

It will help you plan with better accuracy. I always knew how long my next reading from the same book would take me. As the material getting harder I would adjust my estimates.

How to 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. Everything you do in college should be done with the exam in mind. Sooner or later you’re going to have to revisit that page to study it.

It takes a little extra time, but if you do it right the first time, you won’t have to re-read it when it’s time to study for the exam. That means doing a good job of highlighting (or underlining) from day one.

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

It amazes me how many used books I see that still look brand new. It’s crazy to me how someone can read a textbook without highlighting and still get an A. I knew some people like that, but I sure wasn’t one of them.

I know those textbooks of yours are expensive and you want to trade them back in looking like new, but that just isn’t going to happen. Kiss them goodbye.

And let’s be honest: it’s a little crazy to stress about a few bucks in buy-back costs when you’re paying thousands of dollars for that college class. Consider it the cost of success.

Benefits of highlighting

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


It’s often hard to read new and complicated material. When you highlight, it forces you to concentrate. Really concentrate. You can’t just breeze through it and you certainly won’t be daydreaming. You have to have 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 after reading each and every sentence if this content is likely to appear on the exam and how it might be presented.

You are already preparing for the exam.


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.


Really, 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.

High school students 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 key 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. Some use multiple colors for different things. 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. Many times you 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.

To those of you who are used to highlighting, this may sound simplistic. Bear with me here because the fact is that most students just don’t highlight their books at all. They simply read them.

You have to be diligent about clearly identifying the most relevant content in each paragraph. This is the tough part.

Is it best to highlight sentences as you read them for the first time?

I 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. That’s why you should read everything that’s assigned to you. 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 lay the foundation.

You are looking for the salient points in each paragraph and each sentence. Everything may be important, but 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.

Sometimes it seems like you have to highlight the whole thing, but 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, get it during class, or at the very least, that it won’t be on the exam.

You need to understand everything you read in college. Everything. That includes the definition of every word in every book. Don’t skip over a word hoping it isn’t important. 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. As I read, I literally looked up every single word I didn’t know. I know that dates me. You have a dictionary app at your fingertips.

The main reason students pass over something they don’t understand is, as always, lack of time. You don’t want to have to come back and do it later, so take the time to get it done right the first time.

Assume that everything will take longer than you think. Take a smaller bite, start earlier, and slow down. Know the time it takes to cover difficult material and plan accordingly.

Stay ahead

Reading is the one thing that you can always get ahead on. You can’t go to a lecture in advance, but you most certainly can read your textbook as far ahead as you want. Get ahead and stay ahead. You’ll be prepared for every class, understand the lectures better, and leave yourself way more time to clear up the confusion.

Take small bites

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

Just focus on taking it one step at a time. Every page is a step. Every paragraph is a step. Start early and just get something done. You don’t have to do an entire reading in one session. Read whatever pages you can. They add up over a day.

Do a little when you can and you’ll always have time to get everything done.

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 would 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 it’s always smart to keep a notebook nearby as you read. That way, you’ll have all of your questions in one place.

Keep it simple. Just flip to the back of your class notebook, turn it upside down, and start at the back page. Link the content to the question in your notebook. Just number each question to connect it to the reading.

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 you can dictate them, assuming you won’t be annoying anyone. Google Docs has a very good voice recognition app. You can quickly review your highlighted pages, think of questions, and dictate them onto a page. That too will save you time.

Writing test questions will both dramatically reduce the time you need to study for the real thing and increase your retention. We’ll give you some examples in the Learning Center.

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.

As alway, ask yourself again, “If I took an exam on just the material that I covered today, would I get an A?”

The answer should always be “Yes.”

The time it takes to read, highlight and write test questions will always be a little bit longer than if you just read it the normal way. But trust me, this is the best way to do your readings. It will save you multiples of time later on, when you’re studying for your exams, which is what really matters.

Learn as you go and adjust accordingly. With Shovel app you can change your time per page estimates and have them instantly reflected in every reading going forward.

Know what’s ahead

You don’t have to wait to read something to find out you need to adjust your study time. Try to do that in advance.

When you’ve finished reading your current assignment, just take 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.

Individual chapters can be radically different in terms of their difficulty, especially as the weeks go by.

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 every page and backing it up to the cloud. You can have all of your photos automatically back up to either iCloud, Dropbox, or Google Drive.

I realize that most students won’t do this, but if you choose not to, all I can say is guard that book with your life.

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