How well do you know your textbook?

3 textbook types and how to master them

StackedBooks_Icon_150x200If what was on your midterm felt like a bit of a mystery compared to what you remembered from your textbook, maybe it’s time for a new approach. Does this sound familiar? You’ve just settled down on a comfy couch in the Robbins and cracked open your textbook to the chapter your prof is going to be covering tomorrow. You’ve got a fresh Starbucks coffee and a rainbow of highlighters, and you’ve put your phone on silent. Your eyes move across the pages, and you diligently highlight passages that sound important. Then, you get to the end of the chapter and realize you don’t have a clue what you just read and that all that “diligent highlighting” turned your textbook into a colouring book.

Geneve Champoux, Writing and Learning Services consultant, says that while there’s no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to reading textbooks effectively, the first step is to know what kinds of textbooks you’re reading. Here’s her best advice:

1. Textbooks that build your skills

Think math, syllogistic logic and language textbooks. A particular type of problem is discussed and you’re given the tools to solve it, or a set of verbs is presented and you’re shown how to use them. Always start by focusing on only one section or module and reading whatever explanations are offered. These textbooks come with lots and lots of practice questions (and sometimes links to even more practice questions online) because the best way for you to master the material is to keep answering questions and checking your work. Don’t just view those practice questions as extra homework: Do them!

That part’s pretty straightforward, but keep in mind when studying from these textbooks that the information is usually foundational. This means that if you fall behind in chapter 5, chapter 6 probably won’t make a whole lot of sense, so make sure you keep on top of your reading and your practice. If you do find yourself falling behind, the worst thing you can do is let that snowball keep rolling. Go talk to your instructor right away!

2. Textbooks that inform

All textbooks are informative, but t these textbooks present a series of theories, definitions, or processes and show you how they’re applied. Many psychology and biology textbooks are laid out this way. This is where flashcards can come in handy, or, if you’re thrifty with your time, try this technique:

In the margin of your textbook, write down test questions (whatever you’d put on the front of a flashcard) next to where the answer can be found in your textbook. To test yourself, simply cover up the text, answer the questions you’ve written in the margin, and then check your answers. For larger concepts or processes, mind maps can also help you remember information and draw connections.

With these kinds of textbooks, read in small chunks (one or two paragraphs at a time) so you’re not trying to absorb too much information at once. Also, don’t forget to read the learning objectives, the chapter summaries, and any case studies the authors include. Learning objectives and summaries help you decide what’s important as you read, and case studies add context to what you’re reading to help you remember more information.

3. Textbooks that build an argument

In some courses, particularly in 3rd and 4th year liberal arts courses, textbooks are a more in-depth study of a particular issue or set of issues. In these cases, authors may have a distinct thesis or argument, usually expressed in the introduction or opening chapter, or the author may pose a central question or series of questions to be answered throughout the text. Each chapter after that will build upon the central argument or help to answer the author’s initial research question(s). In other cases, the book may deal with a topic such as the history of Canadian women, and each chapter will explore a different facet of that topic, such as domestic labour in the interwar period.

These textbooks aren’t so easy to read in small chunks the way you would a skill-building or informative textbook. Instead, read a chapter in its entirety, then go back and try to identify the author’s main argument and supporting propositions, or sub-arguments. It helps to write these down in a separate notebook. Also try to summarize the chapter in your own words to ensure you understood what the author was saying.

For more information about study techniques, you can book an appointment with a Writing and Learning Services consultant. And for more information about how to read different types of books and improve your critical reading skills, get yourself a copy of Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s book, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.

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Looking for more advice?

There are lots of great tips and ideas in our First-Year Student Primer series:

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