Reading Science/Medical Textbooks

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Reading Science/Medical Textbooks

Why read textbooks as opposed to simply studying your lecture notes?

  • Reading will help you understand the concepts behind the facts. At times, simply encountering the concepts in a different mode will help your comprehension. Obviously, the more complex the material, the more important it is to read textbooks and review books and not simply rely on lectures.
  • Reading challenging material will improve your reading skills, thus helping you perform your best on multiple choice exams. (Students sometimes miss a question because they incorrectly analyze the wording.)

Get comfortable with being confused.
You don’t need to decipher every sentence as you encounter it. Have faith that a confusing sentence will be clarified later in the text. Don’t shut down your thinking or close the book in frustration when you’re confused. Instead, think of the paragraph (or several paragraphs) as the unit of meaning. After reading a few confusing paragraphs, stop and try to “translate” whatever you were able to understand. (Remember, you can always read the entire chapter a second time to improve your comprehension.)

The basic reading process is the same process you use for other readings: preview, read actively, and review.

Preview: The purpose of the preview is to acquaint yourself with how the material is organized and what the major concepts will be. It should be brief! You can use a chapter summary, the bold headings, questions – really, whatever the textbook provides that will give you an overview of the chapter.

Active Reading: As you read, try to discern the meaning and then think of how you can retain it. Sometimes this needs to be divided into two steps (see below). First, talk your way through the paragraphs, “translating” the text as you go. Hold off on writing any notes or doing any highlighting until you get to the end of a section. (You can’t make a wise judgment about what’s most important until you’ve seen the whole territory.) Once you’ve read a brief section, stop and do something active. Some students write notes into the textbook itself (coupled at times with highlighting), others write in a notebook, and others integrate their notes into the appropriate lecture handout. (A final option: Some students read with a laptop at their side and summarize the material as they go by composing questions and answers. They later use these to review.)

Review: Forgetting what you’ve read is a natural process. To counteract this, you must review. Review as you finish a section or an entire chapter. Over the weekend, review what you’ve covered that week. The sooner you do this review, the less time it will take. If you wait too long, you will have to re-learn almost everything, and this is time consuming.

Concepts First!
Make sure you understand the concepts first and fill in the details after that. You need to figure out and establish a “filing” system of the major concepts for each chapter before you can file the details into your mind in a meaningful way. Focusing on concepts will help you retain the details.

Sorting Details
Science and medical textbooks are dense; they contain a large number of details, and it can be difficult to know which details you need to learn and which you can let go. Use some of the techniques you used as an undergraduate to sort the more important from the less important: focus most heavily on those facts that were mentioned during lecture, look at sample test questions to get an idea of the level of detail you will be responsible for, look at “models” of how other students (perhaps those a year ahead of you) have notated their readings.

Focus on Visuals
Visuals are often a goldmine in a science text! A good chart or diagram can summarize several pages of text. In addition, because charts and diagrams present the material visually, they create a corollary, nonverbal way of learning the material. Examine visuals carefully, talking your way through each aspect of the chart or diagram. YouTube also has some great videos on topics such as the inner life of a cell.

Techniques to Use When You Don’t Understand

  • Read a simplified version before reading the more complex text. You might take a look at an old textbook from your pre-requisite courses, read a review book, or read an online resource.
  • Read the material twice. Set the chapter aside for now and reread it tomorrow, after the concepts have had a chance to “percolate” in your unconscious mind.
  • Read aloud. (This doesn’t work for everyone.)
  • Go over the material with a fellow student, a tutor, or the professor.

Retaining What You Have Read
Review, review, review! Reinforce the material from a chart or diagram by trying to draw your own. Take a diagram from an online lecture handout and use the eraser function to erase the labels; now try to fill in the missing labels. Read the handout on memory devices for other ideas.


Written by Cecelia Downs
UIC’s Academic Center for Excellence
1200 W. Harrison, Chicago 60607