Many students struggle with reading textbooks. They’re dry, and they’re dense, and when boredom mixes with confusion, many students are inclined to abandon ship. Thus, many either don’t read their textbook at all or they read them ineffectively. So let’s learn how to read a difficult textbook.
Let’s say you’re taking a biology class. (The same strategies will apply to chemistry, history, AP Human Geography, and any other class that presents difficult content in a thick, overwhelming textbook.)
Each unit comes with a 15-page chapter reading that is dense. It’s full of new vocabulary, complicated diagrams, and confusing processes. The amount of detail is overwhelming. When you read the chapter, you hear yourself mouthing the words, and you even try to take notes, but none of it sticks. You wonder if there’s something wrong with you. Every time the teacher assigns the next chapter, you groan with dread..
Now, before you toss your textbook in the garbage (or the “recycling bin” on your laptop if it’s an ebook), let me reassure you that the problem is not you. There’s nothing wrong with you or your brain that’s making this process difficult. No, reading a dense textbook is just a very difficult task. It’s difficult because it leads to cognitive overload, which not only creates frustrating confusion – it also inhibits memory formation.1
And you’ve never been given proper guidance about how to read a textbook strategically. But, lucky for you, I’m about to deliver that guidance.
Start with a Summary
When you set out to learn any topic that has a great deal of complexity or an overwhelming amount of information, you should always start with a summary. This is critical if you want to avoid feeling swamped by a deluge of detail. Once you know the big picture, it’s far easier to manage and remember the details.2
In many cases, your textbook will provide an introduction page that tells you what the point of the chapter is, and then at the end, it will provide a chapter summary. Read the introduction page and then skip to the end and read the chapter summary.
Whatever the main ideas are, write them down. A major theme of reading a textbook for learning is writing. You can’t expect to form an understanding or a memory from passive reading. You have to put pen to paper in order to convince your brain to care.
If no such summary is provided or if you still don’t feel like you know what the gist of it is, seek out other summaries. YouTube is probably your best resource for this. The videos are short, generally aimed at a high school audience, and often entertaining. Watch multiple videos if you have to. Don’t stop until you’ve got a basic understanding. No one should dive into taking notes on the Krebs Cycle before grasping that cellular respiration is about combining glucose and oxygen to make energy.
Make an Outline
A chapter in your textbook will not be a continuous wall of text, so your notes shouldn’t be either. Flip through the chapter and take note of the bold headings that divide the text into subsections. Write down these subsections into an outline. Leave some space between headings so you can fill in the gaps later.
In addition to making a space to store information on paper, this exercise actually creates metaphorical storage shelves in your brain.3 When you actually get down to reading, your mind will know where to put things.
You might think that you’re now ready to read, but you’re not. Your next task is to collect vocab.
Why? Because we’re trying to prevent being overwhelmed by managing cognitive load. If you’re reading about a complicated biological process, and every fifth word is foreign, you’re going to get lost. So go through the chapter and grab all the vocabulary before you read the actual text.
Most textbooks make this really easy – the vocab words are in bold and the definitions are nearby. Occasionally, the definitions aren’t easy to find on the page, but in those cases, you can just flip back to the glossary. Use one of the pen-and-paper techniques recommended in my article on studying vocab and verbalize as you write.
Once you have the vocab and definitions written down, the words won’t seem so foreign when you read them in context. In fact, you’ll be getting a little spaced repetition when you read them since it will be your second exposure. This will enhance your memory.
Read and Take Notes
Okay, now you’re ready to read and take notes. I know, I know, the process leading up to the actual reading seems long and arduous, but trust me – it’ll make your life easier. The reading itself will go much faster, you won’t get confused nearly as often, and you’ll remember far more of what you read. So in the end, all these time-consuming strategies will actually save you time.
Oh, and remember that outline we made earlier? Yeah, we’re not actually going to use that for note-taking. But we are going to use it, so don’t throw it away. Take notes on fresh paper, writing in the heading and subheadings as you go along.
Okay, start reading, but pause often to take notes. Anytime you think they’ve tossed a big, important idea at you, pause and take a note. Your notes don’t have to just be words though. They can also be diagrams, drawings, charts, mind maps, timelines, or whatever makes sense for the content. Take up space. Leave blank spaces between ideas and notes.
Pay special attention to the images and diagrams provided in the text. These are often important, information-dense nuggets that you’ll want to make note of. Or they’re just visuals that help with memory.2
But don’t write everything down. You shouldn’t be copying the chapter word for word. This is why you started with a summary – you should have some sense of what’s important because you know the big picture. Use that to guide your note-taking. Filter out the unnecessary details. A good rule of thumb is one line of notes per paragraph of text.
Write Down Your Questions
Inevitably, there will be parts of the chapter that you find confusing, despite your diligent use of these strategies. That’s okay. That’s normal.
When it happens, write down your questions, right there in your notes, with space to write an answer later. Then, in class or in office hours with the teacher, ask your questions and write down the answers.
Okay, Now we’re ready to use that outline you made.
Sometime after reading, perhaps a day later, use that outline as a practice test. See if you can recall the main idea from each subsection of the chapter. Force yourself to write something in each blank space. Then use your notes to check your answers and write your wrongs.
Taken together, this method of learning from a textbook will make you a powerful student, armed with the ability to both understand and retain what you read.
See? The problem isn’t you. Reading a difficult textbook is just a matter of using proper strategies.
Notice, too, that the problem is also not with the textbook itself. Textbooks are great resources. You just have to know how to use them.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
He writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Cowan N. Working Memory Underpins Cognitive Development, Learning, and Education. Educ Psychol Rev. 2014;26(2):197-223. doi:10.1007/s10648-013-9246-y
2 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.
3 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.