As a community college instructor, I teach exclusively introductory survey courses: Introduction to Psychology; Abnormal Psychology; Human Sexuality; Organizational Psychology. I can occasionally assign a technical reading, or a primary source, but for the most part, my students will be reading textbooks.
I was recently reading a post about college reading over on the Uncertain Principles blog. It concerns mostly technical reading, of primary science sources. But it got me thinking about reading textbooks and what makes it different from, say, pleasure reading or technical article reading.
Textbooks in psychology are generally arranged in such a way as to lay out the development of thinking around a particular topic. They will expound upon the major theorists in a particular area, and go on to talk about the experimental evidence supporting the theoretical position. These books often will point to both historical research as well as contemporary findings, and explore how the various perspectives in the field (e.g. biological, social, evolutionary, cultural, psychodynamic, behavioral) approach studying the topic.
It would be difficult to skim textbooks in the way one skims technical reading or journal articles or even literature. You really need to read every sentence to get the full usefulness. And it certainly is not pleasure reading. You cannot take the time to leisurely read as you would a summer novel on the beach. You will have to read efficiently.
So, how do I read textbook material to get the most out of it? Well, I’ll tell ya…
First, put the hi-liter away! Hi-liting texts is the quickest way to read without the slightest comprehension. It will give you the illusion of having read (and by extension, comprehended) the textbook material, but after you’re done, you’ll wind up with little comprehension.
Second, take out a pad of paper. In order to really comprehend textbook material, you’ll need to take notes on what you’re reading. You want to turn it into your own knowledge, not the textbook author’s knowledge. That means taking what’s in the book and writing down what’s important in your own words. How do you do that? Read on, oh intrepid reader.
Second, do NOT read the chapter starting with the first page! You need some context within which to “hang” the details in the textbook material. Virtually all textbooks include an outline at the beginning of the chapter. Read that first. Write it down on your pad of paper. This will form the beginning of the framework in your mind (schemas, in the parlance of cognitive psychology) which will hold the details of the chapter. If a text does not have a chapter outline, use the topic headings within the chapter to write your own.
Third, read (and take notes on) the chapter summary. Virtually all textbooks include a summary of the key points at the end of each chapter. This will begin to flesh out the framework you started with the chapter outline.
Fourth, paraphrase in your own words. When you read the chapter summary, stop yourself after reading a paragraph (or two) and ask yourself, “what did that just say?” then write down on your pad of paper, in your own words, a paraphrase of the paragraph(s). If you can’t, or get stuck, reread the paragraph(s), and continue on. Keep at this until the end of the chapter summary. Now, do the same for the whole chapter, beginning from the first page. When you’re done, you’ll have the chapter in your own words, a much more valuable way to understand the chapter’s contents.
Fifth, and last, check yourself. Use the review questions in the textbook (or textbook’s study guide) to see if you can recount what you learned in the chapter. If not, go over your paraphrased notes, and see what is missing, or what you forgot. Modify your paraphrasing technique to help you understand in the context of the review questions.
One more point about textbooks: keep them! It is tempting to take ten or twenty bucks from a used book buyer and go get yourself a double-skinny-half-caf-no-foam-caramel-whipped-cream monstrosity from Charbuck$, but resist the temptation. In a subsequent semester or year, when you want to later review what you learned, it will be easier if you do so using the materials you originally used in learning. You never know when you might want that information later. Keep your original paraphrased notes with your textbook or in a file.
Do you have any other handy tips for reading textbooks? Add them in the comments.
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