As an undergraduate in the field of biology/Chemistry, I've seen plenty of professors recommending at least two textbooks for a mere credit hour of two, each of which comprised of more than 1000 pages. I'm somehow confused by this huge amount of text and it came to my mind to only rely on my class notes instead of the books from now on. Plus some of these books, despite being said to target undergrads' needs, are so hard, complicated, and extensive that even many master's candidates wouldn't take a look at according to my conversations with other people in the field. How should an undergraduate focus on the subjects with this bombardment of information, specifically how should an undergrad prioritize among textbooks, class notes, papers to be read(if any)? and roughly how many textbooks should one read for the whole four years to obtain proficiency in the field? (Is it a good idea to count them in the first place?)

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    Your question is very justified. One might argue that your professors apply a questionable pedagogical practice by giving you the full textbooks without proving any guidance of how to work with them. If they don't point out specific things to read in these textbooks, it's likely that they're not important anyways. Jan 24, 2021 at 17:16
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    I am a chemist, and own quite a few of such books myself. From what I can tell, when getting something equivalent to a Master's degree, the contents of the lectures, seminars etc. will have covered most of the contents of the books, at least of the basic/standard ones. Be realistic - you are trying to get a university degree. You should not be scared by extensive, complicated information. After all, you are trying to become an expert in your field. Jan 24, 2021 at 18:22

2 Answers 2


I went to college more than half a century ago. I accumulated and still have all (I think) of the books in math. But I never actually read any of those books front to back. They were used as a resource to make it possible to gain insight and to solve problems. Some of them were more useful on the insight part, of course.

But, to answer the question, one way to use the books is to let the lecture notes be your guide as to where you should focus within them. Use keywords from the lecture, along with the table of contents and the index to find the things you need to focus on.

Textbooks aren't novels. They provide the outline of a field and, hopefully, plenty of useful (hard) exercises to build skill. With enough hard work, insight may come.

Read textbooks in "snippets", stopping frequently to think about what you have read and find associated exercises to solidify the ideas.

This is especially true for the later chapters. It may be necessary to do more, such as re-reading, for the early parts, since you probably start out with very little skill. But the exercises may be more important than the text itself.

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    I think this issue with textbooks is also a bit field dependent. Most math textbooks at the undergraduate level seem to me to be at least reasonable for a student to master, even in those cases where the class might only cover the first half. However, undergraduate biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology texts (but typically not pure chemistry texts) seem to have more material than one would expect anyone to master, even in graduate school. My wife recently completed a BSN in nursing, and a couple of her books were nearly 1000 pages with dozens of chapters each written by a specialist. Jan 24, 2021 at 17:50
  • "But I never actually read any of those books front to back." True most of time for most people, I guess. As a student I read exactly two books from the first to the last page, including all exercises. Those were really good books on hard topics, but after that, I really mastered the topics. So it may be worthwhile to make exceptions from time to time. And when you "read textbooks in 'snippets'" parallel to lectures etc., you will have worked your way through quite a few books almost completely when getting the degree. Jan 24, 2021 at 18:54
  • @DaveLRenfro Yes, it's field dependent. Math syllabi at the undergraduate level, for good or bad, are relatively standardized and it's easy to find textbooks that cover the material. But consider for instance the class I teach, which is about measurements and measuring instruments and devices. There exists thousands and thousands of different measuring instruments, devices and sensors: each author and each instructor chooses a certain,very limited subset according to their personal preferences and treat them to a depth which fits their goal, with the result that there is no standard book. Jan 24, 2021 at 18:55
  • For instance, I prefer to limit the variety of topics going more in depth, but there is no textbook that has the same approach. So, I usually suggest a few textbooks where to pick specific topics, with the result that the students complain that there is no course textbook. Jan 24, 2021 at 18:55

Ignore the textbooks and concentrate on the lecture notes. If the lectures say "read pages X to Y of [textbook]" then do that, but otherwise look only at what the lecturer provides. After all, that material is what will actually show up in the exams.

Use the textbooks if:

  • There's something you don't understand well from the lecture notes (or you can ask the lecturer/TA about it).
  • You want to understand [topic] in more detail than in the lecture notes. Usually this will be out of interest or desire to truly master the material, not from the need to pass the exams.
  • To find exercises and examples.
  • -1, you do not study for the exams exclusively. Jan 26, 2021 at 18:36

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