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How to Get the Most out of Your Textbook (in the Least Amount of Time)

So many words, so few study hours. Before cracking the books, read these 6 tips and techniques to help you wade through all that text more efficiently.

Textbooks are the backbone of most college classes: treasure troves of detailed, organized information about a subject. While lectures often focus on high-level concepts, textbooks dive into the nitty-gritty that professors don’t have time to address in class.

As such, they’re also densely packed—and may be a little bit daunting. Many students are overwhelmed when they pick one up, says Course Hero educational content specialist Crystal Hupp, a former history and writing professor at San Jose State University who frequently advises students on textbook comprehension—in other words, navigating through a sea of words and facts.

The good news: Once you’ve cracked the textbook-reading code, it’s much easier to glean the essential knowledge without wasting precious study time on extraneous information.

Here are Hupp’s textbook studying tips:

1. Familiarize yourself with the textbook during the first week of class.

“While things are still quiet, give yourself some time to take in the title, the table of contents, and how it’s structured,” she says. “So often, students just go immediately to the section that they’re supposed to read.” Think of it like consulting a map before a long drive. You could blindly program your Google Maps, or whatever GPS you’re using, to go from here to there—but it’s helpful to get a big-picture view, to see the lay of the land.

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2. Read the supplemental material.

Most textbooks contain gems such as key words, glossaries, and essay prompts at the end of each chapter, or at the back of the book. These can be used as study guides. “So often students ask, ‘How do I study for the test? Can I get a study guide?’ My answer is, ‘You already have one in your textbook!’” Hupp says.

3. Use the index.

It’s easy to overlook the index, buried at the back of the book. But it’s a crucial resource to help you unearth key terminology in a hurry. “The index is so important. It will save you a lot of time. You might spend 5 to 10 minutes flipping through a book, when you could just use the index and be done in 30 seconds,” Hupp says.

4. Use the textbook structure to get to the main points faster.

Generally speaking, most textbooks follow a formula: “Each section of a chapter highlights one key concept of the chapter itself. The paragraphs within each section often follow this same formula, i.e., the first couple of sentences introduce an idea, followed by contextualization and examples,” Hupp says. While some textbooks might not follow this formula exactly, most will loosely adhere to it. What you should be asking yourself is, “What is the main point of this paragraph? Do I understand that point?” If yes, move on. If not, keep reading.

Being aware of this structure can help you get through your reading more quickly and more efficiently.

As an aside, Hupp says that to make sure you understand the material you’re reading, write down in your own words either notes or an outline that summarize the information. She suggests using these prompts: “What is the main concept of the chapter? What is the topic or concept of the section? What points are made about that topic/concept (paragraphs) within that section? Can I summarize the answer to each of these questions briefly, in a way that makes sense to me?”

5. Read chapters sequentially.

Textbook chapters build on one another. It’s like a house of cards: You can’t have a roof without the foundation. So don’t skip ahead if you’re already feeling confused. Read in order.

6. Don’t ignore the art.

Textbooks are full of graphs, charts, and drawings. It’s tempting to skip over them because we have a tendency to prize words. But these visual cues can help us picture concepts and relationships that may be hard to explain in words—things like mathematical formulas or economic models. In accounting, for instance, it’s hard to describe what a ledger looks like—but a picture of one is worth 1,000 words.

7. Stumped? Ask for help during office hours!

Students are often reluctant to do this, but “most often, a professor would be more than happy to help,” Hupp says. If a textbook isn’t making sense, no amount of rereading it independently is going to make a difference.

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