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How To Read Textbooks Effectively: 3 Strategies To Boost Understanding (And Grades)

read effectively

Wondering how to help your kids — especially those in secondary school and beyond — with revision? 

You don’t have to become an expert in everything that your kids are learning in school. Instead, shift your focus to teaching your kids better reading skills, so that they can get the most out of their study sessions.

Below are some tried-and-tested tips to get you started.

Put The Highlighter Down

There’s something reassuring about running a highlighter over sentences in a textbook, but it may be giving students nothing more than a false sense of security. 

In read-and-recall tests where researchers had provided training to a group of subjects on better highlighting techniques — highlighting only one sentence per paragraph, or reading and identifying a text’s main idea before proceeding to highlight the text — those who had received the training did perform better than those who hadn’t.

However, other studies have shown that the more students highlighted, the worse their test performance. One test showed that students who reviewed highlighted material performed worse on inference questions. (More on these studies here.)

Why is highlighting such a poor study strategy? Science reporter Benedict Carey reveals in his book “How We Learn” that strategies such as highlighting create “fluency illusions,” or the assumption that because something is currently known, that it will continue to remain that way.

“Fluency illusions form automatically and subconsciously. Beware study ‘aids’ that can reinforce the illusion: highlighting or rewriting notes, working from a teacher’s outline, restudying after you’ve just studied,” he says. “These are mostly passive exercises, and they enrich learning not at all. Making your memory work a little harder — by self-quizzing, for example, or spacing out study time — sharpens the imprint of what you know.”

What are some examples of active learning activities? Quizzing oneself, jotting down questions about the text and looking for answers, and trying to explain a newly learned concept to someone else.

Take Notes By Hand

read effectively

Another active learning strategy is to take down notes by hand. In this age of devices, many parents have encouraged their children to type out their study notes or chapter summaries because it’s seen as a quicker and more organised method of studying. However, this may in fact hinder learning.

A study comparing laptop note-taking with longhand (ordinary handwriting) note-taking during college lectures concluded that “participants using laptops were more inclined to take verbatim notes than participants who wrote longhand, thus hurting learning.” 

Moreover, the study also found that “telling students not to take notes verbatim did not prevent this deleterious behavior.”

One theory is that the act of typing out notes — from a book, or as a lecturer speaks — is more of a mechanical exercise. When one types, one is less likely to assess if the information is worth storing, to rephrase new information in one’s own words, or to summarise information. The brain is less engaged, and therefore, less learning and retention takes place. 

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” says cognitive neuroscientist and author Stanislas Dehaene. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realise. Learning is made easier.”

Instead of creating notes that are neatly typed out and filed away, encourage your kids to write summaries (“What is this section/chapter about?”), thoughts (“What does this remind me of? How is this relevant in real life?”), and questions in the margins of their textbooks, or in a dedicated notebook, and to review their handwritten notes regularly.

Use A Learning System

It’s not just about reading more, but reading better, says Shane Parrish, blogger and former cybersecurity expert at a top Canadian intelligence agency. 

One of his suggestions to aid retention is to make notes for every chapter. 

“Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing any meaningful passages or phrases,” he says. “If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?”

Parrish also recommends pausing at an important concept or passage, and trying to visualise it. (Searching for a relevant image or video may also help.)

And finally, he advocates the use of the four-step “Feynman technique” (named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman) for better learning:

  1. Study a concept
  2. Teach it (or pretend to teach it) to someone else
  3. Identify gaps in knowledge and relearn your material until there is full understanding
  4. Teach it again, but in simpler terms, and using analogies. 

Feynman himself was known as “The Great Explainer,” for his ability to convey complex ideas in simple terms to not only scientists, but also the general public — a testament to his mastery of the subject at hand.

Still curious about active learning? Find out how to decipher a textbook and turn note-taking into a powerful learning experience.

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