Becoming a Better Student

Learning from Textbooks
 

Introduction

Reading and remembering information from textbooks can be one of the most challenging aspects of learning at university. There can be a lot of variation in how texts are used from one course to another, which means that the strategies that will be effective for reading and studying texts will vary from course to course as well. This page will discuss strategies that can be effective for learning from textbooks in courses where the text provides much of the material on which tests and exams will be based. These strategies will not work effectively for all texts in all courses. For each of your courses, it's important to analyze what role the textbook plays and how it's related to the lectures, labs and assignments. Once you've figured out how the pieces of each course fit together, you can choose the study strategies that will be the most effective.
Do You Read Actively?
Reading Speed and Comprehension
Concentration
Dealing with Difficult Textbooks:
Improve your knowledge of the subject's terminology
Assess your knowledge of the basics
Try another text
Integrate text and lecture notes

 

Do You Read Actively?

Some experts claim that watching TV has turned us into passive receivers of information. Students who have trouble concentrating and remembering what they read may have a passive reading style - they slide their eyes over the words and assume that somehow something will sink in. Active reading requires interacting with the information, or creating an "internal dialogue" with the text. To read actively, comment on or ask yourself questions about points in the text. Look for main points and supporting evidence or examples as you're reading. Students who read actively remember the material better, and therefore are using their time more effectively.

Reading Speed and Comprehension

Many students are concerned about their reading skills, in particular their reading speed. However, the speed with which you can whip through a reading is not nearly as important as whether the reading technique that you're using is appropriate for the task. The way you read a novel or newspaper should be different from the way you read a textbook. With a text that you're required to know thoroughly, a slow, careful pace is time-consuming but necessary for comprehension. It's difficult to convince students who value speed over comprehension that it's smarter to spend an hour on five pages and know the material well than it is to spend an hour on fifty pages and remember nothing. However, it's just as inappropriate to spend hours memorizing every detail of a chapter when all that's required is a general understanding of the main ideas.

 A note about speed reading - Woody Allen once took such a course and then read War and Peace in a few hours. He said, "It's about Russia." Research on reading has shown that what many speed reading courses teach is a method of skimming rather than a reading method appropriate for the task of understanding and retaining the kind of challenging material usually found in textbooks.

 

Concentration

One way to improve concentration while reading is to analyze the distractions that are interfering with it. For example, consider when and where you're reading. It's not surprising that students get sleepy while reading if the bulk of it is done early in the morning or late in the evening. Planning reading sessions for times when your energy and concentration are high can make a big difference in how efficiently you read and how much you remember. The distraction of noise or roommates can usually be eliminated by changing where you study.

 If your mind seems to wander back to a personal situation or problem, a focusing strategy might help. For example, reserve a specific time when you will think about the problem. Then when you realize that your mind has wandered to the problem again, write it down on a list and say "Back to work now . . . I will think about that at 4 o'clock." Some students like the "checkmark" technique. Keep a sheet of paper beside you when reading, and each time your mind wanders put a checkmark on the sheet and go back to work. This helps to get you re- focused quickly, and keeps track of your level of concentration during a particular study period.

 Good concentration and time management can be closely related. Because you are attempting to remember most of what you read, it's a good strategy to read in small pieces, spread out over a period of time. If you read for two or three hours at a stretch, it is unlikely that you'll remember the material in any detail. Students often set a time or page limit on their reading, then waste time and inhibit concentration by frequently checking the clock or the number of pages left in the chapter. Don't obstruct your effectiveness with one of these artificial limits - instead, monitor your learning. If you read the same page several times and still don't know what's there, it's time to take a break and/or switch tasks. It doesn't matter if you've read five pages or fifty - the point is not to sit wasting time once you've realized that you're no longer learning. Be sure to plan reading sessions carefully (a number of short sessions distributed over time can be difficult to fit in) so that the task gets done when required.

 

Dealing with Difficult Textbooks

At some point in your university career, you may encounter a textbook which you find difficult to understand or follow. There are several strategies you can try to improve your comprehension of difficult texts.

 

Improve your knowledge of the subject's terminology

Any text will seem difficult to understand if you don't know the definitions of the terms which form the building blocks of communication in the discipline. For example, it would be difficult to read an introductory Political Science text if you're unsure of the significance of terms like "democracy," "society" or "politics." A regular dictionary often won't provide more than a basic definition, so you may need to look for a specialized dictionary, specific to the subject, in the library. It's probably worth your money to invest in a special dictionary or reference book for the subject which is your major.

 

Assess your knowledge of the basics

It's possible that your text and even the course itself could be "above your head" if you lack an understanding of some basic concepts in the discipline. If you're struggling with the basics, talk to your instructor to make sure that you have the necessary prerequisites and prior knowledge required for the course. Meanwhile, check the library for an introductory book on the subject.

 

Try another text

The problem may simply be that the text is poorly written, or for some reason the author's style is difficult for you. Although you can't abandon your required text, it may be helpful to find another book on the same topic in the library. Sometimes a different explanation of the same topic is all it takes to make an incomprehensible subject more accessible.

 

Integrate Text and Lecture Notes

In some courses it's important that the material from the texts and lectures be learned together, so integrating your notes can be an important study strategy. You may want to try diagramming as a way of putting text and lecture material together. At the end of a topic or a chapter, you draw a diagram or picture which summarizes how the lecture and text material fit together. Diagramming can improve retention of material because it enables you to re-organize and integrate information from both the lectures and the textbook, and see it in a different format.

 

Source:

http://www.uoguelph.ca/csrc/learning/textbook.htm
Copyright the University of Guelph, 1999-1991.