How Do You Read to Learn?

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand the four steps of active learning.
  • Develop strategies to help you read effectively and efficiently.

The four steps of active reading are almost identical to the four phases of the learning cycle and involve these steps:

  1.  Preparing
  2. Reading
  3. Capturing the key ideas
  4. Reviewing

Preparing to Read

Start by looking at the table of contents; how does it compare with the course syllabus? What can you learn about the author from the features of the book (see the chart below, “Anatomy of a Textbook”)? Understanding this background will give you the context of the book and help define what is most important in the Open books and notebookstext.

As you open your text to the assigned pages, consider the following questions. What is the chapter title? Is the chapter divided into sections? What are the section titles? Which sections are longer? Are there any illustrations? What are they about? How about tables? What kinds of information do they show? Are there bold or italicized words? Are these terms you are familiar with, or are they new to you? Are you getting a sense of what is important in the chapter? Why did the author choose to highlight specific ideas with graphics or boldface fonts? What do they tell you about what will be most important for you in your course? What do you think your instructor wants you to get out of the assignment? Why?

Anatomy of a Textbook

Textbooks have many features that can help you understand your reading 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 and 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.
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.
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.
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 reflections designed to let students apply knowledge gained from the reading. Some of these features may be presented via websites that 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. Reading this section before you read the body of the chapter may help you strategize where you should invest your reading effort.
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.
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 when doing further research on the subject.

What’s Your Purpose and Your Plan?

Creating a purpose for reading will help you become more actively engaged. Part of setting a purpose is thinking about what you will need to do with what you are reading. Are your preparing for a test? class discussion? research paper? reflective journal? Keep your purpose in mind as you read. Set a reasonable time to complete the assignment and schedule some short breaks for yourself. Approach the reading with a sense of curiosity. Take out your notebook for the class for which you are doing the reading. Remember the Cornell method of note taking? You can use the same format here with a narrow column on the left and a wide column on the right. When using this system with reading, write your questions about the reading first in the left column (spacing them well apart so that you have plenty of room for your notes while you read in the right column). Develop questions about the text from your preliminary scanning of the pages.

Book with handwritten notes in marginsTurn the title of each major section of the reading into a question and write it down in your left column of your notes. For example, if the section title is “The Chemistry of Photosynthesis,” you might write, “What chemical reactions take place to cause photosynthesis, and what are the outcomes?” Jot down any keywords that appear in boldface and discover their definitions and the significance of each as you read.

Try it Out!

Choose a textbook in which you have a current reading assignment. Scan the assigned pages, looking for what is really important, and write down your questions using the Cornell method. Now answer the following questions with a reflection:

  • Do you feel better prepared to read this assignment? How?
  • Do you feel more confident?
  • Do you feel less overwhelmed?
  • Do you feel more focused?

Alternative Approach to Reading Preparation

You may be more comfortable with the outline or concept map methods of note taking. You can use either of these methods to prepare for reading. With the outline method, start with the chapter title as your primary heading; then, create subheadings for each section, rephrasing each section title in terms of a question. If you are more comfortable using the concept map method, start with the chapter title as your center and create branches for each section within the chapter.


Now you are ready to start reading actively. Begin by taking a look at your notes. What is the question you would like to answer in the first section? Before you start reading, reflect about what you already know about the subject. Even if you don’t know anything, this step helps your mind accept new material. Now read through the entire section with the objective of understanding it.

Follow these tips while reading:

  • Look for answers to the questions you wrote.
  • Pay particular attention to the first and last lines of each paragraph.
  • Think about the relationships among section titles, boldface words, and graphics.
  • Skim quickly over parts of the section that are not related to the key questions.

After reading the section, can you answer the section question you earlier wrote in your notes? Did you discover adcollection of different electronic readers all displaying same bookditional questions that you should have asked or that were not evident from the title of the section? Write them down now on your notes page. Can you define the keywords used in the text? If you can’t do either of these things, go back and reread the section.

Capture the Key Ideas

Once you can answer your questions effectively and can define the new and keywords, it is time to commit these concepts to your notes and to your memory. Start by writing the answers to your questions and defining the keywords in your notes in the right column. Now is also the time to go back and reread the section with your highlighter or pencil to call out key ideas and words and make notes in your margins. Most readers tend to highlight too much, however. When it comes to highlighting, less is more. Make it your objective to highlight no more than 10 percent of the text. Use your pencil also to make annotations in the margin. You might use a symbol like an exclamation mark (!) or an asterisk (*) to mark an idea that is particularly important. A question mark (?) might  indicate something you don’t understand or are unclear about. Box new words and write a short definition in the margin. Use “TQ” (for “test question”) or some other shorthand or symbol to signal key things that may appear in test or quiz questions. Write personal notes on items where you disagree with the author. Don’t feel you have to use the symbols listed here; create your own consistent annotation system.  Look for certain signal words; for example, “yet” or “however” indicate a turn from one idea to another. Words like “critical,” “significant,” and “important” signal ideas you should look at closely. When it comes to marking up a text, some students may tell you that you can get more cash by selling a used book that is not marked up, but this is generally not true nor is it as important as understanding the reading and doing well in the class.

Reviewing What You Read

When you have completed each of the sections for your assignment, you should review what you have read. Start by answering these questions: “What did I learn?” and “What does it mean?” Next, write a summary of your assigned reading, in your own words, in the box at the base of your notepaper. Working from your notes, cover up the answers to your questions and answer each of your questions aloud. Think about how each idea relates to material the instructor is covering in class. Think about how this new knowledge may be applied in your next class. If the text has review questions at the end of the chapter, answer those, too. Talk to other students about the reading assignment. Merge your reading notes with your class notes and review both together. How does your reading increase your understanding of what you have covered in class and vice versa?

Strategies for Textbook Reading

The four steps to active reading provide a proven approach to effective learning from texts. The following are some additional strategies to enhance your reading even further:

  • Pace yourself. Figure out how much time you have to complete the assignment. Divide the assignment into smaller blocks rather than try to read the entire assignment in one sitting.
  • Schedule your reading. Set aside blocks of time, preferably at the time of the day when you are most alert, to do your reading assignments.
  • Get yourself in the right space. Choose to read in a quiet, well-lit space. Your chair should be comfortable but provide good support.
  • Avoid distractions. Active reading takes place in your short-term memory. Every time you move from task to task, you have to “reboot” your short-term memory and you lose the continuity of active reading. Multitasking, such as listening to music or texting on your cell while you read, will cause you to lose your place and force you to start over again. Every time you lose focus, you cut your effectiveness and increase the amount of time you need to complete the assignment.
  • Avoid reading fatigue. Work for about fifty minutes, and then give yourself a break for five to ten minutes. Put down the book, walk around, get a snack, stretch, or do some deep knee bends.
  • Read your most difficult assignments early in your reading time, when you are freshest.
  • Make your reading interesting. Try connecting the material you are reading with your class lectures, with other chapters, or something in your life. Ask yourself where you disagree with the author. Approach finding answers to your questions like an investigative reporter. Carry on a mental conversation with the author.


Metacognition is a process of thinking about your thinking. When using reading strategies, think about the process you used and how well it worked. If you used the Cornell method, think about how effective and efficient it was. Did you engage with the reading more? Did the strategy fit your purpose? In other words, do you feel like you are prepared to take the test, participate in a class discussion, write the paper, or accomplish whatever you aimed to do when you set your purpose? What worked? Can you use those strategies next time you read or will you need to adapt them? What might you do differently next time to improve your reading? Thinking about your thinking will help you continuously improve your reading and studying.

Key Takeaways

  • Map the table of contents to the course syllabus.
  • Understand how your textbook is put together and what features might help you with your reading.
  • Plan your reading by scanning the assignment first, then creating questions based on the section titles to help you focus and prioritize your reading.
  • Use the Cornell method for planning your reading and recording key ideas.
  • Don’t try to highlight your text as you read the first time through because at that point, it is hard to tell what is really important.
  • Review your notes.
  • Pace yourself and read in a quiet space with minimal distractions.
  • Think about your thinking.


1.  List the four steps to active reading. Which one do you think will take the most time? Why?



2. Think of your most difficult textbook. What features can you use to help you understand the material better?



3.  What things most commonly distract you when you are reading? What can you do to control these distractions?



4.  List three specific places on your campus or at home that are appropriate for you to do your reading assignments. Which is best suited for you? What can you do to improve that reading environment?



5.  Why is it important to think about your thinking?