College Reading: Making the Most of the Whole Textbook
Students will get more out of college reading by getting acquainted with chapter resources in textbooks, including concepts, cases, sidebars, tables, and much more.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
You will get much more out of college reading if you get acquainted with the many resources that textbooks offer you. Before getting into the ways you can get to know and better use your texts, let's look at some types of texts:
Monograph: A scholarly book on a single subject or a group of related subjects, usually written by one person. Although scholarly, many monographs are not written specifically as textbooks. The significance of books not necessarily intended as textbooks is that they usually lack the typical learning aids found in textbooks, such as glossaries and summaries and questions at the end of chapters.
Sourcebook or Reader: A text that may consist of primary sources, secondary sources, or a mixture of both. Many are written as textbooks, but some are not.
Literature: For English, composition, and literature classes, you will often read works of literature, such as novels, plays, and books of poetry. These, of course, are not written as textbooks. You may also read literature in foreign-language classes, often written in the language you're studying.
Nonstandard Texts: These include articles, handouts, Web readings, and other texts that fall outside the other categories.
Textbook: A standard textbook is by far the most common type of text you will encounter in your classes. A textbook is often written by multiple authors and is usually a comprehensive and wide-ranging collection of material pertaining to the course. Textbooks are used in every conceivable course from math to science to business to foreign languages and everything in between.
In addition to assigning various types of textbooks, professors give diverse types of reading assignments. Some reading serves purely as fodder for class discussions or to set up concepts you will learn in class (especially in, say, math and science classes). Other assignments are the core of what you are tested on. Still others are intended to spark writing assignments. Be clear on the purpose for each reading assignment so you can read strategically.
As if you weren't stressed enough about the required reading, what about the supplemental reading your instructor recommends? While your schedule may not allow you to thoroughly read supplemental assignments, don't overlook them entirely. At least survey them because you could find a gem that will substantially enhance your understanding of course concepts, suggest a paper topic, or give you an extra boost on an essay exam. Also consider talking to your professor about the importance of the supplemental reading.
A significant portion of the research on reading methods focuses on variations of a system called SQ3R, or sometimes SQ4R. The SQ3R acronym stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. When the fourth R is added, it stands for Record. While we briefly present SQ3R/4R as a reading system worth your consideration, our approach is to integrate elements of SQ3R/4R into the suggestions provided into this chapter
SQ3R/4R is not the only system to suggest surveying a text before reading it. Surveying, also known as previewing or pre-reading, is a widely known technique for getting the most out of textbook readings. Experts recommend spending anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour just getting to know the textbook and the many components it offers. At the beginning of a new course, familiarize yourself with these parts of your text:
- Table of Contents: How is the text organized? Compare the contents to the syllabus reading assignments. Has your professor assigned the chapters in order, or does he or she skip around?
- Glossary: Most texts offer a glossary, which can be a major study aid. The glossary will likely contain concepts you'll be tested on.
- Appendixes: What's offered in the back of the book? You might find hidden treasures that will help you learn and prepare.
Also ask yourself general questions about the audience for the book and its purpose, especially if it was not written specifically as a textbook.
Before you read each chapter, perform a mini-survey of a typical chapter's material:
- Chapter introduction and conclusion: These will go a long way toward giving you a flavor of the chapter. Look also for a summary of the chapter so you can see the main points.
- Chapter objectives: Many texts will list what you are expected to learn from the chapter.
- Overall format and structure of the chapter: Note how it's organized and what the author does to emphasize key points.
- Chapter sub-headings: These will give you a big-picture view of the chapter's contents.
- Concepts: How are concepts handled? You may find them in bold type or defined in the margins.
- Graphics, photos, illustrations, tables: Don't skip these as they can help you understand concepts. Read the captions, too.
- Sidebars: These short pieces of supplemental information within the text's chapters may illuminate concepts in the text. You may also find that your professor does not overlook these parts of the reading when preparing tests.
- Cases: Case studies truly help you learn the material because they provide examples of how the concepts are applied in real life. Again, your professor may draw on these in exams.
- End-of-chapter material: Be sure to peruse the back of the chapter. Most texts offer questions about the chapter, usually following the same order as the answers appear in the text. These are wonderful for quizzing yourself, guiding your reading, and ensuring you understand the chapter.
Final Thoughts on College Reading
Endeavor never to miss class, but especially don't skip class when reading assignments are discussed. You'll get much more out of the reading if you join in the class discussion about it. You may even find that the professor adjusts test questions to reflect what transpired in the class discussions. And, of course, professors love students who participate in class.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.