How to read a textbook and learn.


There is an impression among many students that the way to learn from a textbook is to sit down, read, and perhaps underline/highlights as they go.

Too much highlighting though, is not helpful

Students need to focus on key ideas, main points, and foundational information – then move on to more specific concepts, like how to apply that information to answering questions.

Today I’m suggesting ways to help identify and focus on the main ideas that should be the primary focus when reading a textbook.

What does the Heading Claim?

Pay attention to what the heading says – this is the first clue about what each specific section is supposed to be telling the reader.

Sub-headings – indicate where more detail is being given about the topic in the heading and paragraphs that come before the sub-heading. One way to tell if you’re understanding main ideas is to see if you can review the headings and sub-headings and give a synopsis of the information in that section of the book.


Note that most books now use sidebars and boxed text to pull out information that is supposed to be relevant to a section.

These sidebars/boxed text are often a space where you will find examples that try and show the reader another way of understanding the main point.

Terms and Definitions

Textbooks will indicate specific terms and ideas that are important by using bold and italics to make key words/ideas stand out. When a student attends class the professor will also be using these key terms/ideas – listening to the professor and reviewing the text after class will help a student identify which words/ideas they should know in preparing for an exam.


    The importance of attending lecture – Students sometimes think that going to class isn’t important if the professor is just going to say stuff that they can find in the textbook. There are at least two reasons this is usually a mistake:

  • Professors may explain things differently than the textbook, and a student may find this additional explanation very helpful
  • Professors may provide clues about what pieces of information they value (and are more likely to test on)  in the textbook by telling students which ideas to focus on – this helps a student know which parts to focus on when reading the text

Table of Contents and Index

Students sometimes ignore the table of contents/index. These are helpful places for the following reasons:

  • The table of contents lays out ideas in a way that shows how they are connected – the table is like a point-form outline of main ideastable
  • The index will show the reader other places where they can find more information about key-words/ideas – looking at other places where an idea is discussed can help some readers to understand these ideas


Review First and Last Lines of Paragraphs

Some readers find it very helpful to review the first and last lines of a paragraph, to make sure they are understanding the main ideas within the paragraph. The first line usually introduces the main idea. The last line usually summarizes the idea. If you understand the first and last line of the paragraphs in a section, you are probably getting the main ideas from that section.


It can be useful to summarize a point in the margin of the book, or to mark places in the book where main ideas are stated.

Closing Ideas: Conclusions, Summaries, and Specific Quesitons

Most textbooks now clearly indicate where a summary of the main ideas of a section can be found, by clearly labeling this section “Conclusion” or “Summary.”


If a reader doesn’t understand an idea/concept that is discussed in the concluding section, then that is the area of reading in the chapter to go back and re-focus on. If the main ideas in the conclusion seem clear, then move on to the Review Questions or Sample Problems that most textbooks also now include.

sample problems

If after using these techniques a student still has points she is not understanding, then she should either visit a learning center and discuss these points with a tutor, or go to the professor’s office hours and raise these specific questions with the professor. Question and Answers in class or laboratory time may be helpful, however, it is usually a good idea to follow up with specific questions in office hours if questions remain – a student should make sure his questions are resolved before he is tested on a subject; clarifying after the test will negatively impact one’s grade.

     prof student



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