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home | College for Under $15,000 | Lesson 7: How to Read a Textbook

Lesson 7: How to Read a Textbook

Gary North, Ph.D.
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Have you identified your marshmallow time? Have you written it down in your scheduler?

Lesson 7


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 a committee."

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 textbooks.

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 used copy.

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 picture.

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 chapter.

2. Read the study questions at the end of the chapter.

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 slowly.

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 reading.


Pacing Yourself

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.

You also need tips from other college students who are caught in the same competitive process. Share ideas. Share shortcuts. You can do this on this Web site. If you want to join, click here:



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 the most.

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! Red alert!

Whenever there 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 material.

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.


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 anything.


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 assignments.


You must be prepared before you go to class, so that you can take better-informed notes.

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, one book.

If you want to make more money, keep more of your money, and enjoy your money more, subscribe to my free Tip of the Week. The subscription box is here:

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