Chapter 5 Study Skills

5.3 Navigate Textbooks

Often when presented with the textbook for a course, you may find it a little overwhelming. The textbook can be large with a lot of information in it. Students can feel a little defeated even before they start. They may have questions like, “Will I need to know everything in this book?” or “Will I be able to understand it?” or even “When will I have time to read all this?” Rest assured, it is likely much better than it might seem at first. Often you are only asked to read and deal with certain parts of the textbook, as opposed to the whole thing, so make sure to read your instructions carefully. Many students have ended up reading chapters that weren’t required for the course.

Furthermore, there are many strategies that are helpful for navigating your textbook. Knowing the layout of your text can help you locate information easily, identify important information, and aid in reviewing and summarizing material. Here are some useful tips.

Front and Back Matter

Before diving into every line of text in a textbook reading assignment, it is helpful (and saves time) to find out first what resources the entire book has to offer you. Then, as those chapter readings are assigned, it helps to first skim read them for the big picture meaning.

The first exercise in this chapter will help you find all the resources in your textbook, and some textbooks have a lot more help in the front matter and back matter of the text than you may realize. One student who, when given this exercise to use on any textbook he had with him, picked his math book. He was at that time re-taking that math class because he had failed it the term before. As he did the exercise, he realized the back matter of the book included an answer key for half of the problems for every exercise. “Had I known this last term,” he said, “I would have passed!” He would have been able to check his answers and see when he didn’t understand a concept. See if you, too, find something useful in your textbook that perhaps you didn’t know was there, either.

The exercises in this chapter cover strategies for skim-reading specific chapters and a strategy for getting the most out of graphics included in textbooks.

Exercise: Front and Back Matter of a Textbook

Here is a list of several kinds of resources typically in the front of a textbook, known as “front matter,” and a list of typical “back matter” resources. For one of your textbooks, put a check mark next to the front and back matter features it includes then answer the two questions below.
Textbook title____________________________________________________


___Table of Contents



___To the Teacher

___To the Student

___Other (list, here): _____________________________________________


___Glossary of Terms

___Index of subjects

___Answer Keys

___Additional Exercises

___Additional Readings

___Tables, graphs, charts


___Other (list, here): ________________________________________________

Answer the following questions:

  1. Were there any surprises for you?
  2. How can you use the front and back matter in your text to help you with your studies? (3 or 4 sentences)

Skim-Reading Textbook Chapters

Before doing a detailed reading of a textbook chapter, get the big picture by following these steps:

  • Similar to reading the Table of Contents for the entire book, read the Introduction or Chapter Overview, whichever the textbook features, for the main ideas and how they are divided.
  • Read the headings and sub-headings.
  • Note the graphics (charts, tables, illustrations, etc.).
  • Read the first one or two sentences in the paragraphs (the paragraph topic is sometimes covered in more than one sentence).
  • Read the last sentence in each paragraph, which might be a paragraph summary.
  • Read the summary of the entire chapter, if given.
    Read any sentence with boldface or italicized words or word groups in it (usually key ideas or technical terms).
  • Stop when necessary if you come across a complicated idea or topic and take a little more time to skim it until you understand it.
  • Skim the study questions, too. They will help you focus on key points.

Exercise: Skimming

Using the recommendations on how to skim through textbook chapters, do so with a textbook chapter of your choice. When you are finished, close the book and write down as many of the main ideas of this chapter as you can remember by skim reading it. Try not to look back. When finished, check your work to make sure you have transcribed the information correctly.

Reading Graphics

Graphics convey information visually.

Graphics provide a visual way of conveying information. Listed below are various types of data found on most graphics, whether a pie chart, bar graph, line chart, or other type.

The key to comprehending graphics and using them to get more meaning from a textbook chapter or an article, or to answer study questions, is to pay close attention to the typical elements of the graphic. A graphic may include the following elements:

  • Title
  • Captions
  • Legend
  • Axis information (vertical information, or “Y” data, and horizontal information, or “X” data)
  • Publication date (important for the most current information)
  • Publisher (important for credibility)
  • Labels
  • Color (used to differentiate and compare data)
  • Size (also used to represent comparisons)
  • Spatial positions (helps for comparing and contrasting)
  • Patterns represented by the content, itself
  • Trends that appear more evident when viewing the visual representation of the data

Anatomy of a Textbook

Good textbooks are designed to help you learn, not just to present information. They differ from other types of academic publications intended to present research findings, advance new ideas, or deeply examine a specific subject. Textbooks have many features worth exploring because they can help you understand your reading better and learn more effectively. In your textbooks, look for the elements listed in the table below.

Textbook Feature What It Is Why You Might Find It Helpful
Preface or Introduction A section at the beginning of a book in which the author or editor outlines its purpose and scope, acknowledges individuals who helped prepare the book, and perhaps outlines the features of the book. You will gain perspective on the author’s point of view, what the author considers important. If the preface is written with the student in mind, it will also give you guidance on how to “use” the textbook and its features.
Foreword A section at the beginning of the book, often written by an expert in the subject matter (different from the author) endorsing the author’s work and explaining why the work is significant. A foreword will give you an idea about what makes this book different from others in the field. It may provide hints as to why your instructor selected the book for your course.
Author Profile A short biography of the author illustrating the author’s credibility in the subject matter. This will help you understand the author’s perspective and what the author considers important. It will also give you an idea about the author’s credibility on the topic.
Table of Contents A listing of all the chapters in the book and, in most cases, primary sections within chapters. The table of contents is an outline of the entire book. It will be very helpful in establishing links among the text, the course objectives, and the syllabus. It’s also a quick reference to finding specific chapters.
Chapter Preview or Learning Objectives A section at the beginning of each chapter in which the author outlines what will be covered in the chapter and what the student should expect to know or be able to do at the end of the chapter. These sections are invaluable for determining what you should pay special attention to. Be sure to compare these outcomes with the objectives stated in the course syllabus. They are also a good reference for review before a test.
Introduction The first paragraph(s) of a chapter, which states the chapter’s objectives and key themes. An introduction is also common at the beginning of primary chapter sections. Introductions to chapters or sections are “must reads” because they give you a road map to the material you are about to read, pointing you to what is truly important in the chapter or section.
Applied Practice Elements Exercises, activities, or drills designed to let students apply their knowledge gained from the reading. Some of these features may be presented via websites designed to supplement the text. These features provide you with a great way to confirm your understanding of the material. If you have trouble with them, you should go back and reread the section. They also have the additional benefit of improving your recall of the material.
Chapter Summary A section at the end of a chapter that confirms key ideas presented in the chapter. It is a good idea to read this section before you read the body of the chapter. It will help you strategize about where you should invest your reading effort. It is also invaluable when reviewing for a test.
Review Material A section at the end of the chapter that includes additional applied practice exercises, review questions, and suggestions for further reading. The review questions will help you confirm your understanding of the material.
Glossary of Terms Textbooks often highlight or bold new terms. Glossaries are usually at the back of textbooks and give definitions and explanations of important terms in the text. Many students overlook the usefulness of glossaries. They aid comprehension when you are reading and come across terms you don’t know or don’t remember the meaning of. They are also extremely useful when doing assignments and the question is unclear or you are looking for clues in order to proceed.
Index Located in the back matter of a text, it gives page numbers that content is located in. This is probably one of the most useful, yet most underused section of a text. Anytime you need to look up a concept in the text, don’t spend wasted time flipping through the text looking for a section you’re sure you’ll recognize. Go straight to the index and it will lead you directly to what you’re looking for. It is especially useful when doing assignments.
Answer Keys Many exercises in the text have answer keys or partial answer keys at the back of the book (or at the back of individual chapters). Whenever doing exercises or practice problems, make sure you are doing them correctly by continually checking your answers. It’s important to know if you’re on the right track.
Additional Exercises Many texts offer extra practice. For topics that you don’t feel you have a firm understanding in, extra practice helps solidify concepts.
Additional Readings and Resources Additional resources offer extra information about topics. These are useful if you want more information for your own interest, or if you are doing an assignment or research paper on one of the topics from your textbook.
Endnotes and Bibliographies Formal citations of sources used to prepare the text. These will help you infer the author’s biases and are also valuable if doing further research on the subject for a paper.


Why and How to Read the Textbook

You probably already know that you should read your textbooks. However, if you are like many students, reading textbooks might take second place to other priorities, such as attending class and completing assignments. Perhaps it may not seem clear how committing time to weekly reading will support you in achieving your learning goals.  But there are strong reasons for committing to regular reading.

Reading textbooks helps you get the most out of your class time. This is especially true if you are able to read your textbook before going to class.  Why? Because if you are hearing a lot of material in lecture for the very first time, it can often be difficult to take good notes and understand how all of the concepts fit together.  If you are able to read your textbook before you go to class, you will already have a general understanding of the most important topics in that unit.  You will already know some of the key words, and you will have a good idea of what you already understand well and what you might not quite understand yet.  That way, when you go to class, your instructor’s lecture will support and strengthen the things that you’re already starting to learn.  You’ll be equipped to ask good questions and to participate well in class.  Overall, you will get more out of the time you spend in class.

You become a better reader by reading. Learning to read textbooks well prepares you to read other complex material that you will encounter throughout your studies and later on in your career.  Reading efficiently is a skill that you will use throughout your life – not just in your current classes.

Author’s Story: Using the Index

I can’t count the number of times the following scenario has played out.

A student comes to me exasperated. The student is trying to complete a homework assignment question but can’t find the relevant information in the textbook that would help with the question. The student starts flipping through the pages of the text saying they’ve looked everywhere for the information but can’t find it. They are either convinced it’s not there, or they insist they’ve seen it in there before but now it’s nowhere to be found. They continually flip as they explain how frustrated they are.

I ask them what they are looking for. They explain. I use the key words that they used to explain and look up those key words in the index of the textbook. It gives the page numbers of all the places in the text that are referenced to these key concepts. I choose the one that is in the chapter that they are currently working on. Then there it is. They are so amazed, and yet this is just the simple concept of remembering to use the index – a wonderful feature in the back matter of the textbook!

— Mary Shier, College of the Rockies

When you engage in reading your textbook, think about the following seven reading principles.

The Seven Reading Principles

Read the assigned material. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised to learn how many students don’t read the assigned material. Often, it takes longer to read the material than had been anticipated. Sometimes it is not interesting material to us and we procrastinate reading it. Sometimes we’re busy and it is just not a priority. It makes it difficult to learn the information your instructor wants you to learn if you do not read about it before coming to class.

Read it when assigned. This is almost as big a problem for students as the first principle. You will benefit exponentially from reading assignments when they are assigned (which usually means reading them before the instructor lectures on them). If there is a date for a reading on your syllabus, finish reading it before that date. The background knowledge you will attain from reading the information will help you learn and connect information when your instructor lectures on it, and it will leave you better prepared for class discussions. Further, if your instructor assigns you 70 pages to read by next week, don’t wait until the night before to read it all. Break it down into chunks. Try scheduling time each day to read 10 or so pages. It takes discipline and self-control but doing it this way will make understanding and remembering what you read much easier.

Take notes when you read.  Hermann Ebbinghaus is a researcher who determined that 42% of information we take in is lost after only 20 minutes without review. For the same reasons that it’s important to take notes during lectures, it’s important to take notes when you are reading. Your notes will help you concentrate, remember and review.

Relate the information to you. We remember information that we deem is important. The strategy then is to make what you are studying important to you. Find a way to directly relate what you are studying to something in your life. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is not. But if your attitude is “I will never use this information” and “it’s not important,” chances are good that you will not remember it.

Read with a dictionary or use an online dictionary. Especially with information that is new to us, we may not always recognize all the words in a textbook or their meanings. If you read without a dictionary and you don’t know what a word means, you probably still won’t know what it means when you finish reading. Students who read with a dictionary (or who look the word up online) expand their vocabulary and have a better understanding of the text. Take the time to look up words you do not know. Another strategy is to try to determine definitions of unknown words by context, thus eliminating the interruption to look up words.

Ask a classmate or instructor when you have questions or if there are concepts you do not understand. Visiting instructors during their office hours is one of the most underutilized college resources. Some students may be shy about going, which is understandable, but ultimately, it’s your experience, and it’s up to you if you want to make the most of it. If you go, you will get answers to your questions; at the same time, you’ll demonstrate to your instructor that their course is important to you. Find out when your professor’s office hours are (they are often listed in the syllabus), ask before or after class or email your professor to find out. Be polite and respectful.

Read it again. Some students will benefit from reading the material a second or third time, as it allows them to better understand the material. The students who understand the material the best usually score the highest on exams. It may be especially helpful to reread the chapter just after the instructor has lectured on it.

Reading your textbook and knowing how to navigate your textbook and use it as a useful resource can make a significant difference in your learning. You will discover that textbooks are your friends.

Text Attributions

  • “Front and Back Matter,” “Exercise 5.3.1,” “Skim Reading Textbook Chapters,” and “Reading Graphics” were adapted from “Getting the Most Out of Your Textbooks” in Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Phyllis Nissila. Adapted by Mary Shier. CC BY.
  • “Anatomy of a Textbook” is from “How Do You Read to Learn?” in University Success. by N. Mahoney, B. Klassen, and M. D’Eon. CC BY-NC-SA.
  • Text under “Why and How to Read the Textbook” was adapted from “Set Your Purpose for Reading Textbooks” in University 101: Study, Strategize and Succeed by Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Adapted by Mary Shier. CC BY-SA.
  • “The Seven Reading Principles” were adapted from “Reading Textbooks” in Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon. Adapted by Mary Shier. CC BY.

Media Attributions


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Student Success Copyright © 2020 by Mary Shier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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