How To Properly Teach Yourself With Textbooks

As a student, you most probably revere and detest your course textbooks in equal measure. Whether you like them or not, textbooks provide the framework of your course components and are an invaluable tool to prepare yourself for tests and exams. Textbooks may be daunting, but the real reason why many students dislike them is that no one has taught them to use them properly.

Here’s how to properly teach yourself with textbooks:

  1. Prepare yourself before you start reading.
  2. Summarize your textbook by making notes.
  3. Verbalize what you have learned.
  4. Engage your long term memory.

Textbooks can seem like a mountain of information, but you can tackle them one step at a time. Once you understand how to approach each chapter in your textbook, you’ll realize that textbooks are a great ally in understanding and memorization. Here are some proven ways to make your textbooks work for you, and not the other way around.  

1. Prepare Yourself Before You Start Reading

Textbooks can be a labyrinth when you try and read them like you would your favorite fiction novel. It’s hard to tell which information is essential and just ‘filler.’ Unless you’re a genius, you’ll never memorize your whole textbook for your examination. 

Your course textbook is an invaluable tool for presenting information in ‘chunk’ form where you may focus on specific aspects of the overall picture. By offering your course materials in chapters, textbook authors allow you to build up a mental framework to understand and remember the critical aspects of your subject.

Preview the Chapter First

If you’re unfamiliar with the fundamental concepts of your textbook chapter, you won’t retain much information if you stumble your way through from start to finish. To engage with the material, you need to focus your mind on the crucial information that the text explains. 

By priming your mind before you start passively reading the text, you’ll increase your understanding of the material and aid your note-taking exercise. When approaching an unknown chapter of your studies, you should follow these easy steps to improve your understanding. 

  1. First, read through all your headings and subheadings, giving yourself a broad idea of what the section is explaining. 
  2. Peruse all the graphs, pictures, and diagrams in the chosen section of your textbook for a visual idea of what the chapter covers.
  3. Keep an eye out for bolded paragraphs and information as these are your printed google answer snippets and usually contain important information.
  4. Read your chapter summary for an overview of what the chapter covered.
  5. Read the end-of-chapter questions regarding the chapter information. 

Formulate Your Q and A

When students approach a wall of new information without any engagement, they’re less likely to retain information about what they have read. However, if you give your brain a task such as answering a series of questions, you’ll find yourself engaging with your text in a more meaningful and active way.

Your subheadings are a nifty way to formulate your questions if you don’t already have some questions of your own. For example, your chapter on Biology might have a subheading called photosynthesis plant life. In your notebook or laptop, you could frame the statement as a question such as “What is photosynthesis in plant life?”

Time for a Close Reading

Now that you already have a broad overview of your subject and an idea of what information is essential in the chapter, it’s time to do a close reading. Reflect for a moment on what you had already understood of the text and start on the questions you outlined before you started reading the text. Here are the steps:

  1. Work through the text using the questions for each subheading that you formulated beforehand.
  2. Once you’ve completed the reading for the particular question, see how well you can answer the question after reading the text.
  3. Read your textbook information aloud, as studies show that sound creates sensorimotor links that aid memory retention. 
  4. Try and visualize the key concepts in your mind, as this will also aid your ability to retain information. 

To Highlight or Not Highlight

Once you have a solid grasp of the information and formulate tentative answers to your questions without reading the text, it’s time to highlight important information. As you progress through your textbook, earlier information may become somewhat foggy. Your highlights can point you towards the vital information that you uncovered on your initial close reading.

The trick is to not make your entire chapter glow in the dark. You should only highlight information crucial to understanding the particular section of text. Studies suggest that students should be selective about the areas they highlight and limit themselves to one sentence per paragraph for best results. 

However, other studies showed that highlighting the wrong information may be detrimental to students’ recall and stand against them in tests. Therefore it’s crucial to use your highlights as an aid and not rely entirely on your highlights in terms of study. Instead, use them to enhance your question and answer sections that you prepared during your close reading. 

Strategies To Make Your Text Stand Out

Beyond highlighting, there are plenty of ways to make your chosen chapter stand out in your mind. I found that the additions to my course texts were an invaluable tool that I carried through my university degree and even beyond.

I found that if I took care to make each chapter look engaging with bright colored and neat additions, the text became mine in a sense and less of a dry academic tool. 

These strategies include:

  • Identifying key terms and vocabulary by writing in clear explanations of specialized terminology and definitions of unfamiliar words. 
  • Use visual aids such as pictures, graphs, or visual maps on how information interlinks to your key concepts. 

2. Summarize Your Textbook by Making Notes

Whether using your tablet, laptop, or an old-fashioned notebook, once you have completed the above steps, it’s time to summarize your chapter notes. Once again, take time to make your notes bright and engaging. 

Roughly written, untidy notes are less likely to stay in your memory. Once I became used to making my notes clear, neatly written, and visually engaging, study became infinitely easier as I could recall an image of my notes when I wrote tests and exams. I used stickers, highlights, Arty texts, pictures, anything to make my information stand out in my mind. 

Use your own words where you can, and be sure to include verbatim definitions throughout the text. Exams require a certain amount of authoritative sources to don’t limit your notes to just your own words. 

3. Verbalize What You Have Learned

Studies have shown that verbalizing newly learned information enhances retention substantially more than overviewing information in your mind. The more senses that one engages in your study, the more likely you’ll retain the crucial knowledge for test and exam scenarios. 

Not only will you recall information better when you verbalize it aloud by relaying the information, but you also engage multisensory information in the communication process. Studies show that articulating sound leaves a sensory ‘footprint’ in the brain that enhances recall and memory retention. 

Joining a study group or teaming up with another member of the class to discuss what you’ve learned is a great way to ensure you remember vital facts of the subject. Don’t worry if you’re a loner like I was in school, you can always ask yourself questions and formulate your own verbal answers.

4. Engage Your Long Term Memory

Now that you have covered the textbook chapter, made notes, visual aids, and taken notes, you may think you have done your job. Unfortunately not. The brain is a tricky organ and is constantly updating information that it defines as useful and useless. A mere once over may commit the information to your short-term memory, but without a review process, you’ll soon struggle to remember what you learned.

A clinical study showed that students who cram information before tests or exams tend to lose 75% of their memory within 18 to 36 hours. Much the same way, you need to review your learned information regularly to commit the information to long-term memory.

You should review the newly learned information within a day of your initial reading for around 20 to thirty minutes. Then you should review your notes and highlighted text at least once a week to ensure you retain the information.

Sleep on It!

Sleep is a crucial part of memorization because your brain transfers information into long-term storage during the REM sleep phase. If you want the information to sink in, ensure that you balance study and sleep properly. You should engage in shorter sessions of study spaced between periods of rest for best memory retention,

Breaking up your study into shorter study times allows you to concentrate more and enables your brain to have the time to encode and store the information for future use. Leaving your test preparation the night before may get you through the test, but you’re essentially making more work for yourself.

By the next test date, without reviewing and re-engaging with your notes and key information, you’ll need to study from scratch once more, come exam time. You could spend less effort just spending adequate time reviewing your textbook and notes until it sinks into your long-term memory. 

Why Do We Still Need Textbooks in the Digital Age?

We still need textbooks in the digital age because they provide a better framework of course material, and students concentrate better on printed books than online. Students also remember more from printed books. 

Luckily for teachers and students alike, the old-fashioned textbook is not about to become obsolete. Textbooks trump online study for several reasons. 

Study Strategies vs. Passive Online Learning

Expert studies show that students use fewer study strategies when they access information online. These strategies include memory-enhancing activities such as highlighting, note-taking and bookmarking. They also found that students who used printed text, the study group answered abstract questions better than those accessing the information digitally.

Scrolling vs. Reading Text

 A further study showed that students’ understanding declined when they scrolled as they read the material rather than accessing the chunks of information presented in a textbook format. Textbooks format aids students to internalize a framework from which to assimilate their course material, while the open-ended format of online learning fails to do the same. 

Engagement vs. Learning

Rather than aiding students in understanding their course materials, studies suggest that interactive features of the online platform distract readers from the textual content. So while engagement indeed increased with digital interaction, the students were learning less. Printed matter offers fewer distractions than the dynamic online information interface. 

Distraction vs. Attention

The format of printed textbooks better allows students to form cognitive maps of the material they’re reading. Further study showed the tendency for students to multitask when approaching learning material online than students who faced a printed book.

The division of active attention while accessing online information reduces student comprehension and the ability to remember course information. The study suggested a marked division in attention between online learning and printed information at a percentage of 85% of online students multitasking to only 26% of students reading printed text.

Close Reading vs. Answer Snippets

Experts have found that students seeking online information zero in on answer snippets and fail to engage with the surrounding text. While students who use textbooks generally have to read the surrounding information to seek their chosen answer. Thus the students using textbooks tend to assimilate more information in reading printed text after than using online resources.


Despite the advances and engagement offered to modern students, textbooks STILL trump online information as a learning resource. Textbooks are a vital tool in your study arsenal if you use them properly and engage with the text instead of passively reading. Switching from the screen to the old-fashioned printed page will improve your marks in the long run. 

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