Toss Out The Rules


The core of most courses is the textbook that your instructor has selected.  Depending on the course and the professor, you may be assigned other readings to complete, but the textbook is usually the backbone of the course in that it provides the basic learning units of the course in an organized format.  However, textbooks should be used differently than most books, and we should begin by getting away from some of the most important rules we have been taught about how to treat books.


For example, in our culture most of us have been taught that we should never write in a book.  But I encourage you to write in your book.  Make notes in the margin.  Underline sections.  Use highlighters.  Make sketches.  Annotate diagrams.  Put mustaches on the historical greats! Bend the corners of pages or color code them to remember important points.  Put so many bookmarks that the book gains weight. 


Perhaps you were taught that you should read the book only in the order in which it was written, and that you need to read the entire book from cover to cover.  Throw those rules away.  You can skip parts and return to them later.  You can omit certain parts if you are sure you know the material you’ve skipped.  You can read certain parts over and over.


You may be thinking, “Sure, but if I do these things I am going to get less money back for my book.”  You’re right.  But if these things help you get a better grade or help you spend less time studying, this could turn out to be money very well spent.





“SQ3R” is a time tested method of studying from a textbook.  It is an acronym that that is short for: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.  It begins with the recognition that completing an assignment by sitting down and reading without interruption may be both the wrong place to start and a largely wasted effort.  How often have you sat and read something for a half hour or an hour, and then said to yourself, “I don’t even remember what I just read!”?  It is a discouraging experience – literally, because many students do this a few times and finally end up not even trying anymore. Instead, try SQ3R:


Survey: Select a portion of your textbook – a chapter would be good – and just thumb through it without reading in any organized why.  Linger only where the book attracts your attention.  This will usually include pictures, charts, interesting sidebars or cartoons.  If something piques your curiosity, mark it with a magic marker.  Put a sticky note to mark the page. While you are surveying, get an idea of the structure of the chapter and try to summarize in a few sentences what the chapter is trying to tell you.  Now put the book aside. 


Question:  Go back through your surveyed areas of the textbook and formulate questions about the material that has been presented.  Write these questions down. (This step can be involved: writing down the questions in your notebook in full sentences; or it can be highly informal: write them in your own personal shorthand in the margins of the text.  Choose the method you feel comfortable with. Put the book aside for awhile.


Read: Come back to the textbook and read it.  Read ONLY as long as your attention remains fresh and your brain remains engaged.  If your mind begins to wander, do something else for awhile (switch to another subject or do something entirely unrelated (like watching TV or doing the dishes).  Once you have read the chapter, make sure you can answer the questions you generated earlier.


Recite:  Using either your textbook or your notes, or both, go back through the chapter and make sure you can repeat what you learned.  If there are mnemonic (memory aids) tools you have invented or learned, use them.  It is a good idea to recite the last couple of chapters each time you sit down to study your notes.  Also, you should use your recitation times to alter your notes in accordance with what you have learned in the class lectures.


Review:  Once you have “digested” portions of the textbook, keep going back to review what you have learned.  Use questions at the end of the chapter or those that have been provided by your instructor to formalize your review sessions.  Flashcards are also very helpful when you review.  Use these tools in a study group.




Most textbooks can easily be used to construct an outline.  Some students report that outlining a textbook helps them as much as, or even more than, actually reading it.  To outline a text, begin by typing the name of each chapter on a separate line (you may use an outlining application on your word processor for this). Then fill in the details of each chapter using the chapter subheadings.  Next, go through each subheading and list each heading, including the textbook page number.  Finally, for each sub-sub-heading, go to the actual text of the chapter and jot down the important points.  For example, in our textbook you might be sure you know the dates of birth, dates of death, nationality and a brief description of the reason each person is important to the history of psychology for each person mentioned in Chapter 1.  This may seem time-consuming, but you will find that, for the time actually spent working, you will probably learn far more than sitting in front of an open textbook and daydreaming!

Try this.  You may be amazed at how much you learn just through the act of paying attention to the structure of the information provided in the textbook and typing it into your outline.  You should do this BEFORE the class lecture, and refer to your typewritten notes in class during the lecture.  You should leave enough space to add a few handwritten notes.  When you get home, update your computerized notes from your class notes. This will prevent you from getting behind during lectures because you are struggling to keep up with your note taking. 


You are undoubtedly familiar with "flashcards."  These are simple cards (usually 3"X5") onto which a word or term has been placed on one side, and the definition of the word or term has been placed on the opposite side.  Flashcards are doubly effective: for most people some learning occurs just from writing the card.  Further learning occurs by viewing the sequence of cards and learning through repetition to associate the term on the front with its meaning on the back.   The textbook web site provides a "flash card" exercise for you.  However, you can make your own cards just as easily, because the "flashcards" used by the textbook web site are exactly the same as the margin notes (headed in purple and highlighted in brown) that you will find throughout the textbook.  For example, look at the bottom of the margin on page 54 in Chapter 2.  A margin note there reads: "nerves" - "Bundles of neuron axons that carry information in the peripheral nervous system."  To create a flash card for this note, take a card and on the front, write, "nerves."  Now turn the card over and write,  in large letters, "Bundles of neuron axons that carry information in the peripheral nervous system." On each side of the card in small letters in the upper left side, write, "Ch 2, p. 54" or just plain, "2,54."  You may want to make flashcards that go beyond those in the margins of the textbook (for example, listing important details about great persons in the history of psychology).

Like outlining, creating flashcards feels time consuming.  However, a large number of students find them highly efficient.  They work!  It is far better to spend an hour writing flashcards and an hour using them than to spend two hours reading your textbook and then not remembering much of what you read.  You can use your flashcards by yourself, or get someone to help you with them.  The wonderful thing about this method of studying is that it is very portable and can be used whenever you have a spare five minutes or for that hour long study session.  You may wish to remove cards from the pile as you learn them (save the removed ones), or shuffle the deck to test your accuracy.  Keeping track of chapter and page in the upper left hand corner is done partly so that you can easily restore removed cards to the pile or un-shuffle your deck if need be.

There are numerous computer programs available for making flashcards.  Many are free or "shareware" programs.  Others you will have to pay for, but they are generally very inexpensive.  The best one I have discovered up to now is Study Cardz, issued by Elliot Enterprise Solutions - which costs less than $20.00 (in Spring, 2010).  Some others that I have heard about but have not used inlcude Quizlet and RecallPlus.  Many of these programs can be loaded into your iPhone, SmartPhone or iPod touch so you can study no matter where you are.  If you know of a handy learning program, let me know.

Flashcards are a favorite method of studying in Study Groups.  In the group each person agrees to make a certain number of cards.  The cards are then used when the group meets.  Group members may trade off their "learned' cards to be returned to the owner at the next meeting of the group. Each member may agree to make enough copies of their assigned cards for everyone in the group (but remember, these are not easy to photocopy - if you have a method of readily photocopying flashcards, please let me know).