How to use a Textbook: 6 Rules to Follow

VCE Chemistry annotated textbook Heinemann
My own Year 12 Chemistry textbook. Does yours look like this?

Anyone who’s spent time in a classroom knows that in any academic subject, the student who reads the textbook several times from cover to cover and makes colourful, organised notes all over it is going to excel in examinations. For this reason, I’ve been trying to get students reading their textbooks (and making great notes on them) almost as long as I’ve been teaching (since 2006). Glancing your eyes over the words in a textbook isn’t enough. How should you use a textbook properly, in any subject? There are six rules you need to follow.

1. Make notes all over your textbook

The signs of a well-used textbook are obvious: it should be inked heavily with a student’s own notes, the cover should be wrinkled and torn, and there should be at least three different brands of sticky tape holding the book together. It should flex open at 180 degrees with ease, exposing the sturdy threads of spine that prevent it from falling apart. Textbooks are designed to be used! A pristine textbook is the hallmark of a student who doesn’t study. Treat your textbook as your own, and prove that you’ve read it by plastering it with your own notes. Taking notes while you read has been proven to increase comprehension levels by up to 50%… and it makes revising much easier, too. (Just re-read your notes!) What do great textbook notes look like? In all the important sections (and that’s most sections), you should draw a horizontal line in the margin to separate each paragraph. Each paragraph should be summarised in eight words or fewer in the resulting spaces. (See next week’s post on How to Make Great Notes.)

2. Translate key words in your textbook

If you’re studying in a second language, or if you speak more than one language, it will help you to translate key terms into your first language in your textbook. Circle important new words and phrases in the textbook and write the words in your first language beside them.

3. Build vocabulary lists & concept lists based on what you read in the textbook

Vocabulary lists need to contain three things: the word in English, the definition in English and the word in your first language (if not English). Vocabulary lists relevant to the topic you’re studying need to be placed large in prominent places: your bedroom wall (if you’re a student) or on the classroom wall (if you’re a teacher). Build word lists and learn these vocabulary lists using spaced repetition software such as Pleco for iOS or ProVoc for Mac. These apps will quiz you on the vocabulary you’ve been reading at exactly the best time-intervals to ensure you beat the famous “Ebbinghaus forgetting curve”!

4. Highlight your textbook carefully

Highlight important concepts, but don’t go overboard. If you highlight everything, nothing stands out! Use your highlighter and your pen in approximately a 1:1 ratio: they should occupy approximately the same surface area on each page. The best use of a highlighter is to highlight not only key sentences in the book, but also to highlight important notes and summaries that you’ve made yourself. Key things to highlight in a Chemistry textbook, for example:

  • Formulae that need to be learned (lead-acid battery half-equations)
  • Ions (their names, formulae, charges and colours)
  • Acronyms and mnemonics that you’ve created from bullet lists
  • Phrases that examiners really care about (“carbon-carbon double bonds” and “alternative reaction pathway”, for example)

5. Make your own notes on paper using the textbook and external sources

Learning is consolidated further in your mind when you translate the notes you made in the textbook margins to make your own hand-written notes on paper. Make a first set of notes on A4 paper. Use a logical colour scheme and concise language and diagrams to consolidate the key information. Use the textbook as the basis for at least 90% for your notes, but also add information (no more than 10%) from other textbooks, news articles and examiners’ reports. Keep your notes safe, organised and visible. Hand-write your notes! Research has shown that people consolidate much more of the information they’ve read into their long-term memory when they hand-write their notes than when they use a computer to type them up. There are several theories that attempt to explain why: the most convincing of these are that computers can be distracting, that typing requires less hand-to-eye coordination than writing, and that typing is slower than writing (if we include colours, diagrams and large amounts of superscript, subscript and the special symbols required for Chemistry). Always hand-write your notes.

6. Always know the textbook references for your current topic of study

Not all teachers give textbook references for the topics they’re teaching in class. But knowing the textbook reference is crucial if students want to review what they’ve learned after the lesson. How can you make your own notes or do further reading if you don’t have a textbook reference? Even worse, many teachers provide students with their own notes, summaries or PowerPoint slides that accompany a lesson. I’m strongly against this. Learning happens in the act of taking great notes, and a teacher who gives their students pre-made notes is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn.

Learning happens in the act of taking notes, and a teacher who gives their students pre-made notes is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn.

If your teacher gives you notes or PowerPoint slides, don’t use them. Kindly ask your teacher for a textbook reference and make your own notes directly from the textbook instead. The textbook will always be more coherent, more comprehensive and more correct than any notes that your teacher distributes in class. For more information, watch this 10-minute clip from ThePenguinProf:


24 thoughts on “How to use a Textbook: 6 Rules to Follow

  1. For the people who have Androi, don’t forget about Anki! You can make your own flashcards and categorize them by tags, as well as set up a reminder to study them.


  2. I teach reading for college in the US. I like all of your advice except the last one–I give my students every PPT I use (I post them to a class website). The only reason I use a PPT is to present information not in the textbook, so there would be no textbook reference. The students have the PPT to review, and if they want they can print it and annotate it, too. I know it’s useful to take notes by hand, and I teach them how to do that, but having PPTs available for material not in the book at least lets them go back and check that they took notes correctly. It’s also great to review the visuals that they wouldn’t be able to transcribe into notes.


    1. My advice is to students: “don’t use the PowerPoint slides as learning tools”. Read the textbook reference instead and make your own notes. Students will actually learn much more from the textbook than they will from the slides, and the information will be presented much more clearly as well.

      What do you teach that doesn’t have a textbook? Even university Masters courses have textbooks! It sounds like your course is either very advanced or very unique.

      If that’s the case, wouldn’t providing students with a custom-made textbook contain much more information than a printed set of PowerPoint slides?


    2. Zach, I understand your conundrum. As a student in masters and doctoral programs, many of the courses are customized and a single textbook doesn’t contain the relevant information. Rather than confuse students – and make them go broke – by pulling chapters from multiple texts, many of my professors create their own notes as well.

      I’d like to suggest that rather than giving your students the PowerPoints, you take the time to prepare a document with the same information. As a student, it makes very little sense to click through a professor’s lecture slides as a way to study. It doesn’t work. Frequently, I find that the content on a slide is difficult to understand on my own – precisely because slides are not meant to contain all of the relevant information. They should be used as visual supplements to the lecture. I would much rather read a few pages with the same information.


      1. Thanks for weighing in! I agree with @Brainslides 100%. When there’s no textbook to support the course you’re teaching, we have to create a custom textbook that gives students all the information they require.

        Slides are just variable wallpaper. They’re not reading material. Use slides the old-fashioned way: with one photo after another and minimal text (putting text onto those old-fashioned slides was really expensive, so people kept lettering to a minimum!)


  3. I use my books online and I recently started to copy and paste key points from the book into Microsoft word instead of writing them down or typing them which equally takes a long time in my opinion. This has helped me severely in my courses, I remember what I read because I am taking the time to go back to the paragraph and pull out the key points, I am learning because I then print out the notes and highlight words and make notes, It is also beneficial because it takes less time and I can therefore avoid spending too much time on one course. I hope this helps anyone


    1. Copying and pasting is an interesting note-taking technique that does help you to learn the content quite effectively. However, what’s more effective (in my experience) is writing them down by hand. There are a few reasons for this:

      1) Tests are hand-written
      2) Writing by hand requires more brainpower than copy-paste
      3) Learning happens faster when you write notes by hand (in my experience as a student and as a teacher)


      1. It is very true that handwriting is always better but I’ve learned that college is extremely fast pace and if we want to keep up as students, we have to be just as fast and we have to be effective as well and I believe it is a very fast and effective method. The average college students is taking 4 classes and some of us Science majors are taking up to 7 classes when we count labs. We really do not have the time to hand-write notes for every class. That is my experience as a Chemistry pre-Med and for those who have similar experiences, I would recommend it a try. It is truly effective
        This is how I do it
        1. I read the paragraph or section and make sure I understand it
        2. After reading the paragraph thoroughly I go back and extract the main points (copy and paste method). Therefore, when I go back to study later , it is merely a review and I highlight/write extra notes based upon the power-point slides/notes provided by my professor.
        3. I also try to draw the important diagrams by hands for the reasons you’ve stated above about benefit of handwriting notes


  4. Really interesting post James, we are meeting teachers and learners part way using etextbooks and our ITSI solution including the miEbooks app.
    Teachers can push content “into” the textbook in contextually appropriate place e.g. could be ppt or explanatory video or even an assessment and it instantly appears in all their learners book simultaneously in near real-time.
    Learners can annotate with notes, colour coded highlights, free-hand drawing, cloud files, etc and with one click create their own interactive summary all of which is available online or offline.
    If you want to know more feel free to email me or follow us @itsi_uk


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