I have a theory about textbooks. Their value, on average, is the inverse of their weight. The more a textbook weighs, the less valuable it’s going to be.
Now… as an outside observer you might think when a student sits down to study, more information is better. As a student, you start to realize it isn’t quite that simple. While more information may be available in a thicker textbook, there are a few consequences to that you need to consider.
First of all, some classes have huge textbooks and other classes have small textbooks. Does the textbook size actually correlate with the amount of information you’re learning. In most cases, it doesn’t. Some classes have big textbooks and teach you barely anything. Some classes have small textbooks and teach you tons.
What you notice about classes with big textbooks is you’re forced to go through a massive amount of irrelevant information just to get a few important study points. The more information you have, the less likely you’ll learn what you absolutely need.
Second, the larger a textbook is, the less likely a student is ever going to sit down to read their textbook. The majority of textbooks for the majority of students are glorified paperweights. Students buy them for $100 and then let them sit on their desk for most of the semester. They might open it once or twice and “study” (aka daydreaming with their eyes glancing over the words on the pages.)
For students that actually open their textbook to study: You are in the minority. Through a number of semesters in college I didn’t even buy my textbooks for class. The teacher would give reading assignments that would take hours of studying and note taking and I would just skip them (saving me hours.) Despite that, I was still scoring in the top 10% of my class (and, no, it’s not because I’m some kind O’ smartie.)
I’m not telling this story to convince you to give up on your textbook because, by the time I was in my last year of college, I was back to using my textbook. While it is surprisingly easy to do well in most classes without the textbook, there are times when having a textbook is an asset. (This is particularly true when you have a teacher that actually teaches to the textbook.) To round out your study skills, you should have a solid understanding of how to study a textbook effectively.
I tell you this story to help illustrate a few important points.
1. Eliminating The Bulk
The most important goal when studying from a textbook is to eliminate the vast majority of the information you can study. Textbooks are jam-packed with millions of minor points that you could be trying to memorize. Your success depends on how well you can find the most important points to be focusing on.
Occasionally, the most important points to study can be found directly in the textbook. While paying attention to the textbook is useful, most of how your textbook reading affects your grade is going to depend on the actual priorities of the class.
Finding the right strategies to eliminate information should be your top priority.
Learning to prioritize for school is huge. To learn how to utilize them better read Skip Your Homework (Sometimes).
2. Find The Book Priorities.
The most important pages in the average textbook chapter are the last pages and the first pages. You don’t read a textbook in the same way that you read a book. A book can be read from the first word of the chapter to the last word.
Reading a textbook word for word is like getting thirsty and jumping in the middle of a lake. Sure, you might get quenched but a glass of water would have been a little easier.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in high school, middle school, or spending your 8th year in college (hopefully intentionally,) textbooks are virtually all written in a way that is begging you not to read them. Textbook writers know this. They have plenty of good reasons for including lots of pointless word blabbling (yes, I’m making this word up and keeping it.) One of those reasons is not because they expect you to actually read it.
At the end of a typical textbook chapter you can find a summary of all the information in the chapter. That summary of information is your first source of potential information to learn. If you take textbook notes then you might as well photocopy that page and call it a day.
(Well… not really because copying helps and I’d argue there are even better approaches than copying textbook information.)
After that, look at the beginning of the chapter for a summary of the goals of the chapter. If the textbook has a set of goals at the beginning of the chapter then trust those goals could be important points to understand. If you’re going to write notes from your textbook then find notes to answer meet those goals and answer those questions. The first place to look to achieve the goals of the chapter is right in the summary you just reviewed at the end of the chapter.
You may, later, want to look deeper into the chapter. When you do start looking through the chapter you should be looking for very specific sets of information. You should virtually never just dig into the middle pages of your textbook chapter looking to learn more. Every time you do that you’re just settling for the least efficient use of your time.
That reading time could better be spent memorizing important points or further prioritizing information. Think about your textbook as if it’s a slightly more accurate version of Wikipedia.
3. Find Your Teachers Priorities
After you find the points that are important according to your textbook you’ll be in a good position to go through the information your professor gave you. That information that your professor gave you is virtually always better focused on what you’ll be tested on than your textbook.
Textbooks are written for hundreds of different teachers and styles. When your teacher takes the time to write something for their class, you can be sure it’s dramatically more focused towards the points your teacher finds important.
When a teacher hands out a sheet of paper listing all the important points for an upcoming test, trust that sheet of paper. Odds are, the teacher literally went through each question on the test and wrote down what you need to know to answer the question. The teacher might as well be handing you the test. Put your focus on this information.
Sometimes you’ll get stuck trying to infer important points from what the teacher has asked in the past. This may not be 100% accurate but it is usually better than trying to study the bulk of the information. Cutting down the amount you need to study a small percentage can help you remember the information you do study a whole lot better.
4. Compare Priorities
Compare your teachers priorities to the priorities of the textbook chapter.
What is the teacher emphasizing? Are the textbook and the teacher emphasizing the same points? If the teacher emphasized something then look in the textbook chapter for a section on it and see if it looks pleasantly skimmable.
Does your teacher mention anything that’s not in the textbook summary? Can you find it skimming through the textbook chapter?
Does the summary mention something your teacher didn’t mention? Consider eliminating it from the information you need to study.
The goal of this comparison is to narrow down the information you need to learn as much as possible. The amount of information you’ll be stuck with at the end of this step depends heavily on the difficulty of the class.
Med students can expect quite a big load of information to study (but it’s dramatically better than the whole chapter.) Most high school students can expect the information to comfortably fit on a page.
5. Order Matters!
Notice the order described in this strategy because it’s important to developing the skill of studying a textbook effectively.
You want to start at the chapter summary. The reading (and/or skimming) the chapter summary can help you figure out the real value of your textbook. This allows you to know what you’re going to find in the chapter.
After that is a good time to read the goals of the chapter. While reading the goals, you should have a pretty good idea of where in the chapter summary (if anywhere) you can find the way to those goals. In my experience, this order helps because remembering a “goal” or question when you don’t already know the answer can be tricky. It’s easier to remember the facts. This can save time when compared to going back and forth.
Next you want to go over your teachers goals. Your teacher’s goals, when you start paying attention to them, are usually already pretty well understood. If you’ve been taking a class for a month or two you can already get a feel for it. Odds are you’ve already gone over the information you go over in this step.
Directly after reading the textbook summary and goals is a good time to review those teacher’s goals. You’ll instantly be able to recognize where the textbook will be helpful and where the textbook would be a massive waste of your time.
The final comparison process can usually eliminate a large chunk of the information that you probably won’t need to learn. Taking the time to do this is making an investment that can pay you back big when it comes test time. Studying unnecessary information is a large part of the reason students struggle to remember the information they’re studying. If you’re spreading your study time too thin between information then you’ll inevitably struggle to get the knowledge to stick.
So… instead of sulking and suffering through the bulk of your textbook, consider a more direct and focused approach. Textbooks have their value as reference books but they are not ideal for reading. Reading through a textbook chapter is usually dramatically less efficient than just finding the important information and getting that information to stick.
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