Lesson 7: How to Read a Textbook
Have you identified your marshmallow time? Have you written it down in your scheduler?
HOW TO READ A TEXTBOOK
A textbook is a fat book that had to go through an
editorial committee to get approved.
Never forget this saying: "A camel is a horse built by
Committees are why textbooks are so bland. Textbooks
are not controversial. They convey the minimum amount of
information necessary to enable students to get through the first two years of college.
Textbooks in the social sciences (government,
economics, history) and humanities (English) are designed
to allow fast reading and pre-test reviewing. They are
laid out to minimize confusion.
You shouldn't worry about this. It's not your
responsibility. "Yours is not to reason why. Yours is but
to read or fry." Your job is to make the best use of your
time in reading your assignments and then reviewing what
you have read.
What I recommend here does not apply to mathematics
When you buy a textbook of your own, read the first
assignment as fast as you can. Do this at home. Why?
Remember this rule: do only that work at school which can
be done best at school. At home, read your cheap, battered
How fast should you read? You know how long it takes
you to read an assignment. Block out that much time. Then
schedule two readings and one "lecture to the wall."
If you normally spend an hour on an assignment this
long, spend ten minutes the first reading. This for
overall content, not memorizing. You want to get the big
When you skim through, pause at the headings, the
subheadings, and any line that is in color or bold-faced.
These are key sections. Then speed up again.
After you read the assignment as fast as you can,
pausing only at headings and subheadings (which sometimes
are in a different color than black), close the book. Sit
and think about what you just read. How much can you
remember? Jot down a few one-sentence notes. These are
for only one purpose: to prove to yourself that you can
recall a few things when you read very fast. Spend 5
minutes in jotting down notes. If you can't think of
anything, try harder. It's only 5 minutes.
Now go back to the book. Read the chapter again, but
more slowly this time. Read for general comprehension.
Finally, pick out a complex section that confuses you.
Read it slowly. Highlight the important sections that you
will want to review the night before the next exam.
Now close the book. Think about what you have read.
Jot down a few more notes. Now give your lecture to the
wall. See how much you remember. If you draw a blank, re-
read that section. Close the book. Try again.
Go through the assignment section by section,
lecturing to the wall. Then. . . .
1. Read the summary at the end of the
2. Read the study questions at the end of the
3. See if you can find answers in the textbook to
the study questions. If you do, make a note in
the margin: "Answer to study question #3," or
whatever number it was.
Are you reading this assignment mainly for
preparation, so you that won't walk into that class cold
(cold = having read nothing)?
Should you procrastinate for a day? Of course not!
Will you? Probably, once in a while.
My study course is for the real world. I know that
students get into self-made jams once in a while. You may
be in several. So, cut yourself some slack, but only for
one day per assignment. Don't push your luck. Don't make
procrastination a habit.
You must learn to read faster and more efficiently.
You will not initially trust yourself to read super-fast
just once. But because you know there will be a second
reading, with a highlighter in your hand, followed by
lecturing to the wall, you will not be risking much by
reading fast the first time.
Within two or three months, you will find that two
readings, with just one underlining session, plus lecturing
to the wall, will go faster than the time it takes you
today to read the same number of pages only once.
Warning: your math textbook must be gone through
A science textbook can be read slowly for the first
reading, then faster for two readings. It's the reverse
strategy from social science and humanities textbooks.
That's because science books are more complex. But the
same rule applies: two readings per assignment.
Maybe you absorb scientific information fast. If so,
then adopt the schedule: fast reading, slow reading, fast
You must learn to pace yourself. The better you do this, the less often you will get into jams. The less often you will wind up cramming at the last minute.
Part of this pacing involves doing your reading assignments systematically. I have described the best way. But it involves more than reading. It requires that you discover shortcuts. Then you must learn to implement them.
You can't find all of them. You need tips from people who have gone through the ordeal of getting through college. I'm one of them.
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PREPARING FOR LECTURES
If you don't do your homework reading assignment
before you walk into class, you will find -- or may find --
the lectures difficult to follow. The number-one goal of
reading your textbooks is to make it easier for you to
understand classroom lectures. That's because most
teachers give tests that are based more on their lectures
than on the textbook.
Why? Because professors lecture on what they think is
most important. Your professor probably
had very little influence over which textbook got picked by the department --
maybe no influence at all.
The textbook may be changed next year. I guarantee
you, your professor's lecture notes will not be revised in
response to the new textbook next year.
When you walk into the classroom, you must know enough
material to follow the lecture. Reading the textbook on
schedule will help. Reading it two times, but at different
speeds, will help even more. Lecturing to the wall helps
Understand what I am saying. The initial three
readings of the assignment in the textbook are undertaken
to prepare you to take lecture notes the next day. So is
lecturing to the wall.
When you are at your desk at home, ready to begin
study for a course, you must review your notes from today's
lecture. Think about them. As you read, correct them.
Add notes in the margin of your notebook.
Then . . . you will hate this . . . skim the most recent
textbook assignment to see if there is any connection
between today's lecture and that reading assignment.
There probably won't be, but check, just to make sure.
Speed read the older textbook assignment.
What if you find a connection? A-oogah! A-oogah!
is correspondence between a textbook's
passage and lecture notes, there is a
much greater likelihood that there will
be a test question on this
Next, update today's lecture notes. Refer to the page
number of the textbook that relates to the lecture notes.
Later, when you prepare on the night before an exam, you
will find this page reference in your notes. At that
point, carefully re-read that page in the textbook.
Only after you have carefully reviewed and revised
your notes from today's lecture, and after you have skimmed
the previous reading assignment in light of these notes, do
you go on to today's reading assignment.
Miserable, isn't it? I'm sure glad it's you who must
go through this rather than me.
WHEN THERE IS A MAJOR TEST TOMORROW
Read the textbook for your test course last in the
day. Your goal here is special. You must review the
textbook until you just aren't learning anything new. Then
you must read your lecture notes. Read your lecture notes
even more carefully than you read the textbook. Then you
must go to bed. I mean right after you close the book. No
TV, no shower. Go straight to bed. Why? Because your
brain may go over the material while you're asleep. It may
not, but if it does, you're ahead.
On a major test day, carry your lecture notes on the
bus. Carry anything else that is related to the test. You
might even take your underlined used textbook. That's high
risk, but it may be worth it if it's an important test.
Wear your earplugs. Bus time is review time.
Take everything home the same day. Don't lose
Whichever day you designate as your day of rest, the
other day is mainly for researching and writing papers,
unless you have a full-time job.
If you are on schedule by 4 p.m., and you think that
you have a little extra time, get out a textbook in the
course in which you are having more trouble, and review
your yellow markings. Start at the latest chapter and work
back for two chapters. Then do the same with your other
textbooks. Don't assume that just because you had an exam
recently, the same material won't show up on a future exam.
This is real-world. I am not silly enough to believe
that, in the courses you don't like, your goal is anything
except passing the exam.
However, in the courses that you like, or at least can
tolerate, your goal for reviewing the textbooks is to
master the material, not merely pass the next exam. If you
go to college, you are more likely to major in a field that
is related to the courses you liked most in high school.
So, you must make an extra effort in these classes.
Your main goal in the courses that you hate is to get
through them. Your main goal in the courses you like is to
get prepared for the next phase of your academic career.
If you are really ready to learn, you should know that
you can get college credit for work that you do in high
school. That's what Stand and Deliver shows. There are
other ways to do this besides AP exams. Bear this in mind
when you schedule time for your course work. You may be
able to kill two birds with one stone.
The strategy of success in the courses you hate and
the courses you like is the same: review material on the
weekend, after you're tired of working on your writing
You must be prepared before you go to
class, so that you can take better-informed
You need to read all assignments twice in all
courses except math (which takes line by line
concentration): once fast, once more slowly.
You must then lecture to the wall, section by
section, for anything that confuses you.
The last thing to read on the night before a
major exam is the textbook and notes of the exam
course. Then sleep on it.
Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page,
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