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Learning Center

Read Your Textbook

Often, professors expect you to read, understand, and to make use of your textbook on your own. They will, it is true, often structure classes to correspond with assigned chapters, but their lectures generally will not cover everything in the chapter. Students often make the mistake of thinking that if material is not covered in the lecture, it's not important. This mistake results in the common complaint that a question on an exam reflects material not covered in the lecture. This complaint is usually followed by the embarrassing discovery that the question was derived from material in the textbook, the reading of which was expected!

It is not uncommon for students new to college to find that they have not developed the kind of reading habits or skills that will prepare them for success in college. Students need to change their understanding of the place that reading has in their courses and also how to read for college. Too often, students rely on reading habits that got them successfully through high school. Maybe you have one or more of the following habits:

  • You don't read, but rely on the teacher to tell you what you need to know.
  • You read in bed or in front of the television, or while eating or listening to music.
  • You read each assignment only once.
  • You didn’t take notes on what you read.

It's possible these habits didn't interfere with your success in high school. But, if you read now with the television on or while listening to music, there's a good chance you aren't paying the kind of close attention necessary for success in college. Also, if reading your assignments once worked for you in high school, chances are good that what you were reading probably wasn't very difficult and that habit will have to be changed if you are to understand the material you read in college.

Keep up with the reading

Doing the assigned reading each week for all your classes is important and will go far toward helping you do well in your classes. Too often, students think they can skip a chapter and make it up later, not realizing that this puts them in the position of having to read and understand old and new material at the same time. It also means that as the class moves ahead, you are left reading old material that you may lose interest in. Often even your good intentions won't motivate you to catch up on the reading, especially when you continually have new assignments to read. Students sometimes wait to read chapters just before the exam, but this kind of rushed reading may result in poor concentration, comprehension, and recall.

Read actively

Success in college requires active reading. Active reading takes place when you are engaged in the text you are reading by marking it in such a way that records your understanding and assessment of it. When you read actively, you are thinking. Your thinking takes the form of underlining important sections or words, writing notes or questions in the margins, noting connections in the margins, etc.

A note about highlighting:

Students highlight when they read to mark important information and to save time later when they study. When students highlight or underline text, they make decisions about what information is important. However, what typically happens is that the reader will highlight certain things without indicating his/her reasons for doing so. Later, the highlighted text must be reread, and the reader must try to remember why he/she thought it was important. The student finds that he or she hasn't saved any time at all. And, readers will tend to highlight everything, which in effect defeats the point of highlighting.

Instead of, or in addition, to highlighting or underlining, make more substantive comments to yourself about an important point or section by writing in the margin of the book. Note why the information is important, indicate if it connects to or relates to other information, identify groups or categories into which the information might fall, etc. Writing out questions in the margin is useful. You can also try noting in the margin the page number of your notebook to which the text corresponds. Also, it's a good idea to wait until you finish each paragraph or section before you begin to highlight. You can go back and highlight what's important after you have a better sense of the information in context.

Read slowly. Active reading takes time.

Read and reread!

If you encounter difficult material (YOU WILL!), don't simply read it once and give up. Try several times, if necessary, working to understand what you're reading. Active reading can help here, since a good practice in a situation such as this one is to note in the margins what confuses you. Is it a word you don't understand? If so, you know to look it up. Write the definition in the margin somewhere, and try reading the section again. Is it the concept that's difficult? If so, make a note to ask your professor to explain it. Is it the solution to a problem you can't understand? Try to work through the explanation, if there is one, step by step. Sometimes, to understand something you read in a current chapter, you find you have to reread something in the chapter before.

Determine if you should read before or after the lecture

Most people who offer advice about study skills suggest that students read the material before it is covered in the lecture. Ideally, you should read both before and after a lecture, but that's unrealistic, given the amount of time it can take to read and the fact that you have lots of reading to do. So you can experiment and decide which works best for you.

Reading the textbook before the lecture
The benefit of reading a chapter or chapters before the professor's lecture is that you will become familiar with new terms through your reading (when you have time to think about them) rather than hearing them for the first time in the lecture. The lecture will reinforce your comprehension of the chapter or chapters you've read. You will have the opportunity to shape questions about certain parts of the material that the professor can answer in class. You will also be ready for any pop quiz the professor might give the class! Of course, if the class is a discussion class, such as a literature class, and the discussion depends upon everyone having read the text, you MUST read before class.

Reading the textbook after the lecture
The benefit of reading the chapter after your professor lectures is that you will comprehend the chapter better after attending and taking notes on the lecture. There may be many points or sample problems in the chapter that you won't fully understand until after the lecture. You can also use your reading of the chapter to help you review and reinforce what was covered in class. You can also use your reading to "build" or complete your notes.