How to Read and Retain Information From College Textbooks

It was somewhere around the 300th time I reread the same passage that I realized I had not been retaining any of the information I was supposed to be powering through for graduate school. I was wasting my own time, and when I woke up enough out of my dry-textbook-induced coma, I was so disappointed in myself.

“That’s it.” I thought. “I’m going to fail graudate school. Might as well drop out now and get used to the thought of selling my used underwear online.” (Don’t laugh, it’s a thing.)

We’ve all been there at some point. No matter how good your intentions are, sometimes textbooks are just…boring. It’s not offense to your major or your professor. But sometimes the words in a textbook are just strange symbols on a flattened piece of wood and your mind is on your weekend ahead or the neighborhood cat or that funny meme you saw online instead of concentrating on your studies.

Fear not, fellow students! I have a plan.

It’s simple. This plan has no steps. Just one suggestion. Here it is:

As you go through your weekly readings, break each paragraph down into one summarizing sentence. Do this for every paragraph. If you’ve read something and think to yourself:

“…what? What did I just read?”

…go back and reread that particular paragraph and then write one sentence that summarizes what the author was trying to say.

  • Was it an introductory paragraph for the next very important point?
  • Was it to present a new definition?
  • Was it to pull credibility by name-dropping?
  • Was it describing a complex philosophical concept that is pertinent to your knowledge?

Despite what you may think, the author of your textbook is an expert in their subject or topic. Or at least they should be. They aren’t just going to fill the textbook with words that mean nothing. It’s not like listening to a coworker or friend ramble on for two hours without ever having said anything. The keys to the knowledge are in there. You just have to retain them.

So turn yourself into a little sponge and start soaking up all that good shit.

Now, you can summarize each paragraph in a separate notebook for notes, or you can write the summarizing sentence in the margins with a bracket and arrows pointing to data and FACTS! that you need to know for your test or paper.

I know. I know. Writing in textbooks is highly looked down upon by most societies. I understand that. Only write in the margins if the book is yours, and if it is yours, I encourage you to mark that book up. It’s yours. That knowledge belongs to YOU. It’s not important to keep the book in pristine condition. What’s important is taking in all that good knowledge. So do whatever you need to do. Dog ear those pages, color code those chapters, highlight!, write notes next to important stuff…

Ok so now that I’ve given you that little gem of advice, here’s a freebie:

If you are going to highlight your textbook, you may be tempted to highlight everything you think is important. I would suggest…not. doing that.

I repeat:

Do NOT highlight everything you find important

That’s what the paragraph summaries are for. So you can look back and remember what each of the paragraphs, and therefore the entirety of the text is about.

Instead, only highlight what you intend to use as a direct quote for your paper, presentation, or assignment.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to use a gem of knowledge only to be unable to find it again because I’ve highlighted half the textbook. By highlighting only what you need to quote directly from the text, you can easily find your direct quotes along with chapter numbers or page numbers as necessary.

Let’s review:

#1 Tip: Summarize each paragraph with a single sentence as your read.

Freebie Tip: Highlight only the text you plan on using as a direct quote. Otherwise, refer to your summary sentences.

Ok. Got it? Good luck out there!
Have any other good suggestions? Leave a comment!

Happy studying,

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