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Strategies for Reading College Textbooks

by M.T. Wroblewski

Flip open almost any college textbook, and it is abundantly clear that the information is presented in a very different manner from the standard nonfiction or fiction book. College textbooks feature many subheadings and italicized and boldfaced words. These prompts are there to direct your attention to key points. Some reading strategies can help you make the most of your study time and fully comprehend the material assigned to you.

The SQ3R Method

Write down the SQ3R acronym on a sticky note and keep it with you until it becomes second nature. It stands for survey, question, read, recite and review.

Begin your reading session by taking a few minutes to acquaint yourself with the contents. Survey the chapter titles, subheadings, pictures and captions, charts, graphs and pull-out quotes.

Formulate tentative questions from your cursory review and write them in pencil in the margins of your textbook.

Read the material slowly and carefully, being sure you understand terms, definitions and concepts that are placed in italics or bold-faced type. If you are an overzealous fan of highlighting, read the material first without a highlighter in hand and then go back and highlight only those passages that are most important. Write observations or questions in pencil in the margins.

Recite, quietly to yourself, key concepts and passages. Test your comprehension of the material by putting the textbook language into your own words. Just as writing down information helps cognitive recall, so too does saying it aloud.

Review your penciled notes and highlighted passages. Repeat this important step several times a week, starting from the beginning of the textbook and moving up to your current assignment. These review sessions don’t always have to be labor-intensive. Plan time to review your textbook in short, leisurely blocks of time.

Other Active Reading Strategies

Adjust your normal reading rate and perhaps lower your expectations at the same time. It takes time to read a college textbook page thoroughly, jot down notes and highlight key points and more if you must go back to re-read. Remember that comprehension -- not speeding through material in the textbook --is your goal.

Draw your own charts, diagrams or illustrations on the page if doing so helps you master key concepts. This technique can help with complex or arcane material, especially if you are a visual learner.

Write a quick summary of the chapter immediately after you finish reading it. Recast key points in your own words in less than a page. Your summary does not have to take long; just create bullet points to summarize the most important points.

Create a vocabulary list of key terms. Look up the definitions of words that are unfamiliar to you. Then try to incorporate the words into your daily conversation so that they become second nature.


  • Expect to fine-tune these reading strategies. You might refine some tips and abandon others until you find an overall strategy that works best for you.

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