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College Success Hint: How to Take Notes from a Textbook

how to take notes from a textbook

You’re ready to crack open that brand new textbook. But are you prepared to actually read for understanding? 

Learning how to take notes from a textbook helps you pick out the key information. Effective notetaking can improve learning and help you commit the information to memory. It not only helps you score better on your tests, but it may help you understand the concepts better.

To take effective notes, you need to know what to write down and how to record that data. It requires you to weed out the extra information and focus on the key concepts.

Use these tips to help you take better notes from your textbooks.

Preview the Chapter

Skimming through the chapter before you read or take notes helps prepare you for what you’ll read. Look at the subheadings, graphics, intro, conclusion, and study questions at the end of the chapter.

You can use this information to start an outline in your notes. Write down the different sections of the chapter with room below it to take notes.

Write in the Textbook

Physically writing your notes instead of typing them on a laptop is usually more effective. Research shows that students tend to learn better and remember more when they write notes on paper.

Writing directly in your textbook can help you highlight key concepts and find that information in the textbook when you go back to study. A highlighter works well to mark key information. Highlight only the most important things, or it loses its effectiveness.

Another effective option is jotting notes in the margins. You might draw symbols to explain a concept or write an example in the margin. You can also rephrase what the text says in your own words.

If you’re using an electronic textbook, this option doesn’t work. Some electronic versions may let you annotate the text, but others require you to write everything down on paper.

Read First

Break down the chapter into smaller sections, reading one part at a time. Using pages or the sections between subheadings is an easy way to do it. 

Taking your notes while you read can distract you and make you forget what you’re reading. Read through a full page or section before you start taking notes. This allows you to focus on the content and see where the section goes before you start writing.

Start From Your Memory

Write down what you can remember from the section you read. This is a type of retrieval practice, which simply means you force yourself to recall information rather than looking it up. This improves your memory of the material, helps improve learning of the concept, and may encourage you to slow down and read more thoroughly.

Once you write down what you can remember, go back through the text to make sure you hit the key points. Add more notes on what you missed, or expand on what you have.

Use Your Own Words

Jotting down the exact phrasing from the textbook doesn’t help with understanding or remembering the information. Instead of regurgitating the material word for word, rewrite it in a new way. This ensures you comprehend what you’re reading.

The reworded notes also help you when you study. Your way of wording a concept is easier for you to understand than the scholarly writing in a textbook. You’re better able to remember your version of the information because it makes sense to you.

Keep Notes Short

The goal of notetaking is not to rewrite the entire textbook. You want to pick out the key ideas and concepts as a reference.

Textbooks give you cues to help you pick out the most important ideas. Heading subheadings are a big indicator as are italicized, bolded, and highlighted words. Concepts that get a chart or diagram in the textbook are also likely important.

You also don’t want to skimp completely on your notes. If you only write down one or two words, you won’t likely remember what you’re talking about, and you won’t have the key information about the concept. 

Use Graphic Organizers

Visuals can help you remember key concepts better than just written words. Draw a model of a concept you’re studying, such as a picture of the water cycle or plant life cycle. 

If your textbook compares two concepts, use a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles. The common traits go in the overlapping area, and the unique traits go in the other parts of the circles.

Timelines work well for history notes. They can also apply to other subjects when you’re learning about events or concepts that happen in sequential order.

Color Code Notes

A color-coding system helps you find the information you need when you study. Group information together based on shared features, and assign each group a different color.

If you’re reading a history textbook, you might choose different colors for dates, major events, key terms, and notable people. For science, you might choose a color for key terms, formulas, famous scientists, instructions, and sample problems.

Annotate Your Notes

You’ll likely gain a better understanding of concepts as you work through the chapter. Your initial notes represent what you picked out during the first reading. If you reread the chapter, you’ll likely pick up new details you missed the first time.

You’ll also learn more in class. Pay attention to what your professor points out during lectures. Those facts are likely the concepts that’ll make it onto the exam.

Annotate your notes with the additional information as you go through class. Write extra ideas, clarifications, and examples in the margins of your notes. You can also leave space within your notes for that extra information so you can keep similar concepts together.

Learn How to Take Notes From a Textbook

Figuring out how to take notes from a textbook can help you improve your overall study habits. Making efficient use of your time and taking effective notes makes it easier to understand what you’re studying.

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About the Author

Christopher Manns

I was born in the UK, grew up in Canada and have lived in the USA since the 90s. I love my family, water sports, ice hockey, skiing and soccer. When I'm not helping people save money on textbooks, I'm travelling with my wonderful family and playing sports.