How do you learn from a textbook?


Why can’t you read a textbook like a book?

Reading a textbook can be very challenging and most people do not do it well.

A colleague of mine once commented that a book represented a single thought by the author. I thought this was a very profound insight.

Moby Dick is just one thought by Melville. A very sophisticated thought with many sub-topics, illustrations, and reflections … but just one thought. And the book is just as long as it needs to be to hold that thought.

But a science textbook is an introduction to, and a summary of, a science. It is the collected thoughts, insights, and inquiries of generations of scientists. And as such, it is not one thought but many more than can be counted. And it is much, much smaller than those thoughts require.

The author(s) of a physics textbook is(are) attempting to introduce you to the science of physics. From the point of view of a student the material in physics can be thought of as concepts of physical phenomena, the mathematical description of those concepts, physical problems which can be addressed with mathematics, and the experiments which are used to develop those concepts and mathematical descriptions.

Though most textbook leave out (except in the most general discussions) the experimental component of the science, what remains still needs to be packaged very tightly in order to get it into a little book. And so you need to develop a method of unpacking that little book in order to understand the science.

A modern metaphor is that the science is compressed when it is placed into a book. And you need the decompression routine to fully access all of the material, most of which will remain hidden from you until it is uncompressed.

What do textbooks do poorly?

Let us begin to answer this question by asking another.

What is a science?

Most people would respond that a science is formulae, knowledge, theories. And this is almost exactly wrong. Or at least very incomplete.

Formulae, knowledge and theories are answers.

But science is primarily about questions. Questions … and finding ways to answer those questions … and finding ways to check those answers … and finding new questions.

Science is a process and most textbooks, because of their lack of interaction, do not show process well.

Let us take an example from a textbook.

We have just studied the laws of motion and the next topic is energy and work. These new topics are presented in a very logical and natural manner. And students are left with the implication that if they do not see the natural link of motion and work then they are perhaps not suited for physics.

But what the book does not show is the alternative (and often reasonable) explanations we explored and had to reject, the many wrong questions we fumbled with before recognizing that we were on the wrong path. The story of how the ideas of work and energy came into being would fill a book in itself. How could we package that into our already overly full text? And so students are not given the time to build up the concepts on their own as we did, students do not have the time to worry over subtle details of phenomena as they let the new ideas take root in their minds.

Because of the lack of room and time, textbooks only show the one path that best describes our present understanding.

What do textbooks do well?

But most textbooks actually describe that one path; those formulae, knowledge and theories; very well. But that description is in a compressed form.

Textbook authors and publishers have made textbooks a science and an art in themselves. Most texts are very structured in a standardized format which is a compromise that has been designed and tested to reach most people, most of the time.

The language of the material is usually clear, neutral and accurate. Most textbooks are not flawless. Some have an inaccurate presentation, or a lack of insight into their audience, or a simple typographical error. But most of the time the authors, editors and publishers do a good job.

The material is divided into chapters that are reasonable in length and content. The chapters are divided into sections where the authors use a variety of ways (words, pictures, diagrams and mathematically) to more completely present the material. Key ideas and concepts are highlighted or even color-coded. The authors include numerous examples and exercises to give you sufficient practice while studying the material. And there are enough problems in each chapter so that you could claim a reasonable mastery of the material by successfully solving them.

How should you read a textbook?

When a faculty member asks you to read Chapter 2 we normally misspeak. We expect you to read, worry about, understand, and master the material of Chapter 2.

And how do you do that?

  1. Getting to know the text.
  2. The introduction may or may not be worth reading but you should at least look it over. Sure go ahead and read it. It shouldn’t take long.

    Start by paging through the entire book. Note topics that you know, kind of know, or have no clue. Be totally unimpressed by how much you don’t understand. If you understood the textbook then you’d be in the wrong class.

    Study the structure of the textbook. What are the topics of the chapters? How are the chapters divided? What kind of highlighting and/or color-code is used? Is there a summary at the end of the chapter? Is there a set of objectives at the beginning of the chapter? Are there examples and exercises imbedded in the text or are they all at the end? What are the levels of the problems? Are there different levels? If so, how are they marked?

    Take your time. The textbook will be your constant companion for a while and you had better get to know its strengths and weaknesses pretty well.

    Remember that you are learning a science -- a large and interrelated collection of questions, answers, mathematics, and procedures. What you are looking for now is getting an overview of that science.

    You should do this before you go to the first class. Certainly before your first reading assignment.

  3. Preview the material.
  4. You should do your reading assignment before the class where it will be covered in by lecture, discussion, or any other method of teaching.

    Go over the chapter and make careful note of new ideas, new terms and techniques which you do not know yet. Look at the examples and keep track of what new problems you will soon be able to solve. Study the assigned homework of that chapter and try and think what it will take to answer those questions/problems.

  5. Decide what you will learn from the chapter.
  6. Now that you have a decent grasp of what new material is coming your way, sit down and decide what you will learn from this chapter. Perhaps it is how to do problem 37 which completely baffled you, or how angular momentum relates to torque , or …

    The important thing is to read the chapter with attention and the intent to fill in gaps in your understanding. You have to be careful. You may not see something important. But as you improve your understanding you should make fewer and fewer mistakes. And the teacher and your study partners should help you complete the picture.

  7. Read a section.
  8. Now that you have a plan go ahead and read the chapter. Both the study skills sites and the physics study sites on the main study page have some useful advice for reading science textbooks.

    Read actively. Ask questions, take notes, apply what you learn as you go along.

  9. Make it your own.
  10. Normally just reading the textbook (even carefully) will not be enough to remember the material, apply it, or use it to construct a larger understanding. For that to happen you will need to keep working with the new material until you have it firmly in your mind. But how you do that depends on what works for you. Read the section on the learning styles page.

  11. Review the material.
  12. But once you have internalized the material you cannot let it rest dormant. You have to keep using the knowledge, ideas, techniques constantly. So if you move to a new way of doing things come back to this material every once in a while for review.

    The outcome of physics is a comprehensive and coherent description of the universe. We (and you) must constantly weave our new understanding with our old. Everything you learn should be ready and on hand, to use again and again.

Using other books

Though a text is designed to be all things to most students that does not mean that it will work for you.

Be ready to explore other books to provide what you find missing in your text.

If you need more examples and problems, then look at problem books. If the material is presented a little too tightly for you to read easily on a first run, then find a book at a more basic level to read first - maybe a non-calculus text, or a high school text, or a conceptual physics text - whatever works. Your teacher may have some suggestions and so might other students.

It would be good to keep your algebra/trig book handy and also your calculus book. And a high school physics book (even if you did not take it) might be good to have around.

Back to INTRODUCTORY PHYSICS:A Learner's Guide

Last updated 8/27/2002.