What to Do When You Don't Understand the Textbook

••• FatCamera/iStock/GettyImages

Have you ever read a whole chapter in a textbook, then reflected on the experience only to realize none of the words stuck and none of it made any sense? You are not alone! This has happened to students throughout history since the dawn of textbooks.

There are several things to consider when tackling the textbook comprehension problem, including examining the nature of textbooks in the first place, developing reading comprehension strategies and accessing other resources.

The Nature and Purpose of Textbooks

Textbooks are carefully written to be precise in their language, and they are often densely packed with information. In most textbooks, every word counts and every word is conveying a specific meaning.

Because of this, reading a textbook should be approached very differently than reading a novel. Textbooks should be read more slowly and carefully. In fact, it is said that famous mathematician George Boole chose to purchase and read textbooks as a child over regular books because of the greater value they provided – they simply lasted much longer!

How to Approach Reading Densely Written Material

There are many strategies you can employ when reading a textbook in order to enhance your comprehension and understanding. If you are struggling, try some of the following suggestions.

  • Avoid distractions: If you attempt to read while the TV is on, or pause your reading to check your phone every few minutes, this will greatly limit your ability to focus. Set all distractions aside and find a quiet place to study.
  • Slow down your reading: It’s far too easy to fall into the habit of letting your eyes move across the words without allowing time for their meaning to sink in. Remember that reading a textbook should be a much slower process than reading a novel.
  • Take notes: As you read, pause frequently to write down definitions of key terms or to summarize key examples in a notebook. It will help you understand as you read and make it easier to review the material later.
  • Ask yourself questions: Each time you finish a section, stop and generate questions about what you just read. The act of coming up with questions about the reading forces you to reflect on what you did and didn't understand. Some of your questions may be quickly answered after a few moments of reflection. Others may require a reread or have to be tabled for later review. But in the end, this act of asking yourself questions will help you keep on top of where your current understanding is.
  • Summarize what you read: After each section or chapter, add a summary of the reading to your notes, or make use of a graphic organizer to organize the associated ideas. (See the resources associated with this article for links to graphic organizer templates.)
  • Test yourself: Make use of any end-of-the-chapter questions or activities whether assigned by your teacher or not in order to help you test your understanding. The act of recalling can not only help solidify information, but it can illuminate problem areas that require further review.
  • Compare notes: Find a partner in the class with whom you can compare notes or discuss the reading. In this way, you can help each other fill in any missing gaps and develop a deeper understanding of the material.

Seek Out Other Sources

It is extremely unlikely that your textbook is the only source of information on a given topic. Consider seeking out other textbooks in your school library, or look up resources online that offer explanations or even videos about the topic.

Getting an explanation of a topic from multiple different sources is an excellent way to zero in on a deeper understanding. Each source and each author will have a slightly different way of explaining the topic and you may find that some sources make more sense to you than others. Sometimes the different angles from the different sources paint a more clear picture in your head than you would get from your original text alone.

Bring Your Questions to Your Teacher

After you have read the section carefully, applied various reading comprehension strategies and taken notes, you may find that you still have a list of unanswered questions. This is a good time to seek out your teacher (or a tutor or knowledgeable peer) and get those last questions answered.

Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions to make sure you fully understand any explanations offered. The old adage that there are “no stupid questions” applies here. Most teachers will tell you that their favorite part of teaching is when a student comes seeking answers and is actually engaged in understanding them!



About the Author

Gayle Towell is a freelance writer and editor living in Oregon. She earned masters degrees in both mathematics and physics from the University of Oregon after completing a double major at Smith College, and has spent over a decade teaching these subjects to college students. Also a prolific writer of fiction, and founder of Microfiction Monday Magazine, you can learn more about Gayle at gtowell.com.