Boost Your Learning From Textbooks With 5 Effective Study Techniques

Students learning from textbooks

Reading is one of the most frequent learning activities you do while studying at college. But are you sure you read textbooks effectively enough? Although it seems like a very self-evident action — open and read — there are multiple ways to do it. Here, we will discuss the most successful techniques for effective learning from textbooks. And although scrutinizing a book from A to Z might be an obvious choice, it is not among the most efficient strategies. Have you heard of SQ4R, P2R, or backward reading? Let’s dive in — we will tell you everything about these and other study techniques that ensure you good grades and, most importantly, high-quality learning.

What matters most when reading a textbook chapter for an assignment or a final test? Nope, it is not the amount of material you have digested overnight but the quality of your retrieval abilities. Effective reading doesn’t imply reading every paragraph assigned to you (oh my, a rare university professor reveals this secret!) Even if you read two hundred pages a day, it amounts to nothing if you neither understand nor remember anything from the material. Reading is equally inefficient if you can’t apply this knowledge to solve particular cases. You really need to get to some study techniques for reading books then!

An important note before we turn to these useful strategies for reading textbooks — learning has to be hard. We often forget about it, but feeling the resistance and facing difficulties are in the definition of education. If working with a textbook or completing an assignment does not go smoothly, it means you learn something new and extraordinary (and not that the material is unbearably dull). Although reading and rereading a sentence after sentence might seem sufficient, it gives you an erroneous feeling of familiarity with the material. In reality, it doesn’t mean that you actually know the stuff you’ve been reading about. To learn something new means to relate a novel concept or a skill to what you already know, understand why you need it, learn how to operate it, remember what it is, and recall this concept or skill after a certain time. 

Moreover, we often approach learning from textbooks as if we are reading novels or detective stories. However, reading a college book is an entirely different activity performed for other purposes and with different cognitive abilities involved. I wish there were a special term for that, like “textbooking” — then we would not cherish an illusion that one should read the Introductory Chemistry in the same way as one reads The Great Gatsby

The strategies described below take these features into account; then, it is up to you which strategy to employ! Below you will also find a digest on questions related to textbooks, such as how to take notes, whether it’s better to use an e-book or a hard copy, and where to buy textbooks. 

Textbook Reading Strategies 

There are many approaches to learning from textbooks, but they all rotate around several key concepts. First, you don’t read college books linearly. Leave reading from A to Z for Stephen King’s novels when you don’t want to know how it ends in advance. However, it is quite doubtful that you can feel any suspense around Advanced Organic Chemistry. What you should do instead is to create your own roadmap for reading a college book, maybe even starting from the end of each chapter! The order offered by the author is a good one but might not suit your purposes.

Secondly, always get an idea of what the chapter is about before engaging with it. Upon this initial browsing through pages, try to identify key concepts and questions, and then proceed with effective reading. 

Thirdly, the strategies offered here work only with smaller chunks of texts, around 8-12 pages. So divide the assigned readings into smaller pieces before studying them. And finally, don’t approach reading a textbook as something undemanding that you can do when tired or during a short commute: fruitful work is tedious, boring, time-consuming, and requires a lot of concentration.

SQ4R: Survey – Question – Read – Recite – Record – Review 

Once you get what SQ4R stands for, this method becomes crystal clear. Review the chapter and connect the buzz-words that caught your eye with your previous knowledge on the subject. For example, you are reading about the Dutch Baroque period, and one name clearly stands out — Johannes Vermeer. Maybe you have seen some of his paintings or watched “Girl with the Pearl Earring”? That’s already a great connection! 

Form questions based on chapter headings and subheadings to ensure purposeful reading. What are the features of Dutch Baroque paintings? Who is Johannes Vermeer? What is his style famous for, and what are his major artworks? 

Now you can read the chapter (or an 8-12 page chunk), having your questions in mind. After reading, try to answer these questions in your own words — that’s what we call “recite.” 

Only after this step, you can take notes (quite counter-intuitive, huh?). By now, you are familiar with Vermeer and his monochrome palette, so try to record only essential parts in writing. Review your notes regularly, and use the questions as guiding lines.

Just in case, here is a video and a web-page with solid explanations of the SQ4R-method— check them out if you decide to master this study technique!

P2R: Preview — Read — Review

P2R is yet another abbreviation standing for the same concept: active and purposeful reading. Previewing actualizes your previous knowledge, reading small chunks of texts allows you to remain concentrated, while reviewing (spaced repetition) ensures your memorization and deep understanding of the subject. This scheme is more compact, and it might be easier to remember. 

Active Summarizing 

This method can be one element in your crafted reading scheme or a full-fledged technique. You divide your text into tiny chunks (one paragraph or one page); after reading one, you summarize it in one sentence or pull out keywords and concepts. This method is especially helpful if your attention tends to slide away. With active summarizing, you always concentrate on what you read. One caveat is that you shouldn’t take notes or highlight words as you read — reserve it for the summarizing part.

Moreover, always paraphrase and don’t copy sentences or phrases directly from the textbook. You can even experiment with covering the part you’ve just read with a piece of paper to train your recall. Return to these summaries regularly and trust me, you will master that Physics course by reading a textbook in the right way! And, of course, don’t strive to make your notes look good as if they’re from Pinterest — be natural and concentrate on the content, not the visual appearance. 


Here comes one more golden method for working with textbooks. It is based on making questions to the material you read (as easy as that) to practice its recalling at a later point. We’ve once discussed it in full detail, so please check this article.

Skimming and Backward Reading 

As noticed before, effectively reading a textbook is not about reading every word from it. Skimming is a life-saving technique that saved many students’ GPAs (I hope you’re not an exception). It is brilliant for lengthy chapters of your textbooks that might not be extremely important for your learning goal. Fruitful skimming should help you identify the text’s general concept (subheadings, image captions, first sentences of the paragraphs, and keywords are your best friends). While skimming, also try to figure out the essential sections and only read them.

Backward reading is a perfect match for skimming. Usually, every textbook is supplied with a chapter summary or useful questions at the end of each chapter. If not, the last paragraph should still contain a recap of the main arguments and ideas. Therefore, start at the end to get to the main point! Knowing the key idea behind the chapter makes comprehension much easier because you have already formed certain expectations about the content.

How to choose from these awesome methods for learning from textbooks?

Your choice depends on multiple factors, like how much time you have and how in-depth you need to study that chapter or the whole textbook. Skimming is perfect for familiarizing yourself with a specific concept, while SQ4R better suits for foundational materials vital for overall understanding of the course. As always — know your purpose and context!

Digest on note-taking and textbooks

There is no right or wrong when it comes to note-taking! The number of tools available for note-taking and mark-up (highlighter, marginal notes, post-its, laptop programs) is extensive, and you should just find what suits your situation better. Here we’ve discussed the pros and cons of digital note-taking. Although hand-writing generally ensures better memorizing, with certain precautions making notes on your tablet and laptop is undoubtedly effective. It depends, of course, on what kind of notes you’re taking! There are a bunch of techniques just for note-taking (celebrated Cornell system or mind-mapping) — but these would be a subject of another post!

One of the dilemmas that might appear is whether to write in a textbook or not. Again, this depends on the circumstances. If a book belongs to a library copy or is rented (this saves you heaps of money), you shouldn’t highlight or take any marginal notes. The same goes if you want to sell your book later to earn some cash. In this case, you want your textbook to be as good as new, so refrain from scribbling. You can use all kinds of post-its instead! Suppose you like e-books (they’re usually cheaper, but it’s not their only advantage). In that case, you should rely on mark-up options available in your e-book-reader and combine those with hand-written notes. If you’ve bought a textbook that you want to keep — be your own king or queen, make as many mark-ups as you need. But remember that highlighting every word in a paragraph does not mean you memorize and understand the whole thing — refer to the active reading techniques outlined above!

But what matters the most is to have a textbook by your side. Although it is now easy to find almost anything online, a college book provides a collection of valuable and authoritative arguments useful for your study track and future career (not even mentioning that it helps you pass those tests). A usual problem between you and the textbook assigned for the course is money — college books are extremely expensive. That is why you should turn to BooksRun, where you can buy or rent new and used textbooks cheaply just in a few clicks. After you’ve successfully finished working with a book according to the techniques discussed here, you can sell it back to BooksRun for a fair price. Now the deal with textbooks is complete!