Student Guide

Reading and remembering information from textbooks can be one of the most challenging aspects of learning at university. The amount of reading from one course to another can vary widely, as can your professors’ expectations for how and what you read. Depending on the course, your professor might expect you to:

  • Read carefully before lecture in order to participate in discussion and follow the lecture
  • Read carefully after lecture in order to determine how the textbook complements content from the lecture
  • Know details from the textbook
  • Read for the “big picture”
  • Use the textbook as a reference

No matter how your professor expects you to use your textbook, there are many strategies to enhance your learning when you read university textbooks.


Active Reading

‘Passive’ reading is what students do while they are watching TV with their textbooks open. ‘Active’ reading is a more effective reading strategy that requires:

  • Interacting with information or creating an “internal dialogue” with the text
  • Commenting on or asking yourself questions about points in the text
  • Looking for major points and supporting evidence or examples as you are reading
  • Remembering the material better, and therefore using your time more effectively

Reading Speed + Comprehension

For textbooks that you are required to know thoroughly, try:

  • Using a slow, careful pace. Although this is time-consuming, it is necessary for comprehension and retention
  • Spending an hour on five pages and knowing the material well, rather than spending an hour on fifty pages and remembering nothing
  • Using a more focused reading style as textbooks require more attentiveness compared with newspapers or magazines

Reading + Concentration

To minimize distractions and increase your concentration consider:

  • WHEN you are reading
    • Students get sleepy while reading if the bulk of it is done early in the morning or late in the evening
    • Find times when you are alert and awake and plan for reading then
  • WHERE you are reading
    • If you are reading on your bed or in front of a TV you may not be really concentrating on your textbook
    • Find quiet spots with few distractions (e.g., roommates, media or telephone)
  • HOW LONG you are reading
    • If you are reading for long stretches of time you may not be really concentrating and understanding the text
    • Plan reading sessions for times when your energy and concentration are high as this can make a big difference in how efficiently you read and how much you remember
    • Plan to read for shorter stretches of time with realistic limits
    • Reserve a period of time during the day to deal with personal situations or problems and not think about them during reading times


Reading Strategies (SQ4R)

When you are reading and trying to determine what to highlight or to include in your textbook notes, pay special attention to:

  • Visual cues (bold face, colours, borders, layout) that alert you to important information.
  • Main ideas, often identified through chapter titles and headings
  • The sequence of the main ideas to understand the flow or the relationships between ideas
  • Supporting evidence that the author give to support any claims or theories?
  • Any clues as to the writer’s personal opinion or bias. Bias will be more obvious in some texts and in some disciplinary fields than in others
  • The location & content of the index and glossary (great resources for definitions and terminology)
  • The chapter introductions, summaries and review questions to provide an overview of the chapter’s most important points


Most university students find that their readings are often complex and packed with information and they use many methods to cope with the reading load. One popular method, SQ4R, is a series of strategies to help you read more actively and to improve your understanding and retention of the material. Try all the strategies at first, and then choose and apply those you find most effective.


  • Read the preface and introduction to the text, and browse through the table of contents and the index Get a sense of the ‘big picture’ of the textbook
  • For each chapter: read all the titles and subtitles, study any pictures, charts or graphs, and if there are any, read the summaries at the end of the chapter and any study questions


  • Change headings into questions. For example, the heading “Central Tendency” could become “What is central tendency?”
  • Create your own questions, based on your knowledge of the material or your lecture notes. For example, you could ask, “Is the textbook’s definition of central tendency different from my professor’s definition in lecture?”


  • Read attentively to find the answers to your questions
  • Change your question if you find after reading that your question can’t be answered


  • Close the textbook and answer your question in your own words
  • Reread the section if you can’t answer the question


  • Summarize answer to question in your own words and record what you read
  • Some common methods are to highlight and/or mark the text, or take notes, or some combination of both


  • Have a regular review period (usually once a week). This is an effective strategy for retaining information
  • Start from the beginning of the course in each review session. The volume of material to review increases as the semester progresses, but the amount of time needed to review older material decreases


Highlighting Pros & Cons

Is it better to highlight your textbook or take notes on a separate sheet of paper? We’ve summarized the pros and cons of each method in this section and the next.

Highlighting Pros

  • Less time-consuming than note-taking
  • Convenient when graphs and charts from the text are important to understanding the material

Highlighting Cons

  • Easy to do poorly – students usually highlight 70-80% of the text but experts say highlight
  • Inefficient when studying for exams – many students end up reading the entire book again rather than just reviewing highlighted phrases
  • Restrictive – you are limited to studying the material in the way that it was presented in the textbook
  • Studying requires the use of a heavy, clumsy textbook
  • Difficult to integrate with lecture notes
  • Textbook ends up looking very used and reduces resale value


Note Taking Pros & Cons

Note Taking Pros

  • Easier to determine if you’ve learned the material when you write it in your own words
  • Note taking encourages you to be concise and more selective of important information
  • Flexible – you can use colours, formats, diagrams and pictures to enhance your understanding of the material
  • Useful for combining textbook notes with lecture notes
  • Convenient when you’re on the go – it’s easier to carry around notes than textbooks all day

Note Taking Cons

  • Time-consuming
  • Messy – you can get disorganized when you have many notes for many courses


Handling Difficult Texts

At some point in your university career, you may encounter a textbook which you find difficult to understand or follow. Below are some tips to help you.

Improve your Knowledge of the Subject’s Terminology

  • Understand difficult definitions of the special terms used in the textbook
  • Look for a specialized dictionary in the reference section of the Library to help you
  • Invest in a special dictionary or reference book for the subject

Assess your Knowledge of the Basics

It is possible that your text and even the course itself could be ‘above your head’ if you lack an understanding of some basic concepts in the discipline. If you are struggling with an introductory course:

  • Talk to your instructor to make sure that you have the necessary prerequisites and prior knowledge expected for the course
  • Check the Library for an introductory book on the subject
  • Read an overview in an encyclopedia as it may help fill in some gaps

Read Out Loud

Reading out loud and hearing the words can help to increase your comprehension of difficult material. If you read aloud with a classmate and take turns analyzing, explaining, and summarizing the text, you may also find that another person’s perspective helps to clarify meaning.

Try Another Text

The problem may simply be that the text is poorly written, or the author’s style is difficult for you. Don’t abandon your required text, but it may be helpful to find another book on the same topic in the Library. Sometimes a different explanation of the same topic is all it takes to make an incomprehensible subject more accessible.