How to Read a Textbook Effectively and Efficiently


Attending medical school involves a whole lot of reading, and a lot of that reading is going to be dull, dense, and demanding. Not only do you need to understand everything you read, but there’s a good chance you also need to remember it.

If you’re struggling with your textbook readings, this is the method I use to get the most out of my textbook.

Guest post by Justin Deol.


The Methodology Behind How to Read a Textbook

Effectively reading your textbook is a lot like drawing a picture.

how to effectively read your textbook

The first step is getting an overview of what we are about to read. This is equivalent to an artist drawing an outline. In the same way an outline sets up the boundaries of a drawing, a mental overview sets up the boundaries of what we are about to learn.

An outline helps you determine what the final product will look like without the details. For example, in step 1 of the image above, we already know that the final image will be of a human even though we don’t have the details. I can Google all of the different types of eyes and hairstyles I can draw to make the human unique, but the final image will still be of a human.

Taking a few minutes to do a mental overview of the textbook chapter or section you are about to read accomplishes the same goal. Say you’re reading a chapter on Newton’s laws. After reading the headings and the summary sections at the end, you might determine that this chapter will cover only the first law:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Now you have an outline of where this chapter starts and ends.

This step is often underestimated, and too many students dive into reading the chapter without forming an outline first. But creating an outline is a key step that should not be skipped.

For example, imagine you’re a runner and I am your coach. I say to you, “Okay, keep running, and I’ll tell you when to stop.” A minute goes by and you look at me. I shake my head. Two minutes go by and I still haven’t said anything. Ten minutes. Twenty. Sixty. At some point during that workout, you’re going to start holding back since you have no idea when I’m going to tell you to stop.

Now, imagine that I said, “Let’s run for 20 minutes, take a 5 minute break, run for another 20, and then call it a day.” You will be ready to go hard because you know the limits. Understanding the boundaries of what you’re studying enables you to focus at a higher level.

how to effectively read your textbook

The next step is adding some details to your outline. This is done by actively reading the textbook. The final step is to reflect on what you just learned. This is equivalent to outlining the drawing in black marker and coloring it in.

So, the 3 steps to effectively and efficiently read or study from a textbook are:

  1. Mental Priming
  2. Active Reading
  3. Reflection


1 | Mental Priming

Reading a textbook is not like reading a novel. There are no twists and turns, you aren’t hoping to be surprised, and for the most part, the information doesn’t change. You’re also free to skip over any sections you think you already understand. Therefore, it’s a good idea to look ahead in the chapter to determine what you’ll be reading (and if it’s necessary to read it at all.)

Read all of the headings and the summary at the end of the chapter if one is included. Skim over the questions at the end of the chapter. By getting a general overview of the topic, you are essentially “priming” your brain. Your brain will absorb important ideas more easily because it has seen them before.

I also recommend explaining to yourself out loud what you think the topic is about. This will help you discover any gaps in your knowledge, which you can fill in with the next step.


2 | Active Reading

By this step, you have determined the boundaries of your reading session. You have an outline. The next step is to fill in the details with active reading.

Active reading is the process of thoroughly engaging with the text. To read actively, we must ask questions, challenge the author’s assertions, reread what we don’t understand, make personal connections, and focus on the author’s use of language to discover their deeper implications.

Here are some tips for becoming an active reader:

  • Read in small chunks, only a few pages or a sub-section at a time.
  • Highlight key words. Be as minimalistic with your highlighting as possible.
  • Take notes on key topics using the Cornell method.
  • Flag any important pages you may want to reference later.
  • Most importantly, after reading a page or a few paragraphs, explain what you just read to yourself in your own words.

Explaining what you just read to yourself or to someone else will help you solidify what you know and what you don’t know, and it will improve your reading comprehension. If you’re explaining something just to yourself, I still recommend you do so out loud, just so long as you’re not in a library.

Reading out loud might go a little something like this:

“Ah.. yes, so Newton’s first law is that an object in motion stays in motion. An object at rest stays at rest. This is all true unless an object, in either case, is acted upon by an unbalanced force. Wait.. what is an unbalanced force? Hmm… wait, this reminds me of when I learned how to draw free body diagrams in physics. If I give the coin on my desk a little push, it eventually stops moving. This is because it has the unbalanced force of friction acting on it.”


3 | Reflection

It’s time to finalize the drawing. Textbook reading requires sequential understanding, meaning you typically have to understand one section before you can move on to the next.

how to effectively read your textbook

This is because the next section builds upon the knowledge gained in the previous one. Therefore, it’s a good idea to reflect on what you learned after reading each section. Again, explain what you just read out loud. Try to use simple language. If you find any gaps in your knowledge, fill them in before moving on to the next section.

For the sake of clarity, when I say section, I am referring to the small number of pages or the sub-section you have chosen to read. For example, let’s say a textbook chapter has ten pages of dense information. I recommend reading two pages and then pausing to reflect. Once you feel confident about those two pages, read the next two and reflect on those, and so on.

Another great way to reflect on what you learned is to complete any example problems, questions at the back of the chapter, or assignment questions. While this may feel tedious, it will certainly improve your comprehension.


Other Strategies for Textbook Reading

Reading a textbook is a workout for your mind. You have to constantly assess what you know and don’t know by trying to explain the concept out loud. Then, you have to go back and fill in any gaps in your knowledge. Plus, it takes a great deal of time—something medical students do not have in abundance. Since time isn’t always on your side, below are a couple of alternative strategies.

Question #1: Reading a textbook takes a lot of time. I don’t have the time. What should I do?

This is one of the biggest problems students face. Students are juggling so many demands that they don’t have the time to sit and actively read a whole chapter.

In this case, I recommend using an alternative method when mentally priming.

Mentally prime yourself by reading the headings, the summary section, and the questions at the end of the chapter. However, before you dive into the reading, start on the corresponding assignment or essay instead. Most textbook readings are accompanied by an assignment, especially in engineering.

Then, when you get stuck on a question, quickly summarize out loud what you do and don’t know about the problem. Write it down. Then, go over your lecture notes and see if you can fill in the gaps in your knowledge. If you can’t, go to the textbook.

The first thing to look for is an example problem that’s similar to the assignment question you are working on. If there are no example problems, you can start reading the textbook. This time, when you go to the textbook, you will have a better idea of what you are searching for because you set up more defined boundaries by going through your assignment and reading your lecture notes.

Question #2: Even after reading a section and going through it out loud, I still don’t understand. HELP!

If you’re read through the section, explained it to yourself out loud, read through your lecture notes, and you still don’t understand the topic, you still have a few choices:

  • Look up YouTube videos on the topic by using the chapter headings and subheadings as a guide.
  • Put this assignment and reading on hold. Write down any questions you have and get them cleared up by going to your professor’s office hours.
  • Ask a friend. There’s a good chance that at least one of your friends or classmates knows what’s going on. Sometimes it’s actually better to get an explanation from a peer because they may have had the same gaps in knowledge that you have now.

Those are my tips on how to effectively and efficiently read or study a textbook. I hope this article helps you become a better textbook reader.


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Rubén Alvarado Barzuna

    Hello, Dr. Jubbal. Thank you for these recommendations. As a Veterinary student, I have sown great rewards by heeding your advice.

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