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I am decent at learning from videos. But poor at learning from textbooks, wikipedia articles etc. Unless the material is really easy to follow, I am unable to learn most of text content. How do I practice this? Last semester, I read 500,000 words to practice my reading, but I mostly learnt by internet pdf slides made by various universities teachers rather than the book itself (I did read the book and highlighted all the important facts and summarized them but I would never reach any conclusion trying to do so), so I am not very confident about my ability to learn from text. Can you share some tips?

This skill is really important once I enter a job as well as I am acomputer engineering student so that is going to be most important as technology keeps changing. I have never found any good advices related to this in stackexchange.

My issue while learning from textbooks:

I fail to connect the dots. It seems overwhelming for me to conclude something by reading. Whereas while reading slides/notes, it is easy for me to conclude and connect the dots. I don't get bored or distracted, I remember what I have studied if I understand but my problem is that I don't even understand.

Did this happen in past?

I have very light memories. I remember reading textbooks as well but there used to be tons of videos. And most of my subjects were rather numerical(where you need to do calculations), so reading books was easy for me in that case. But here most of my textbooks are literature (computer science so) and maybe some coding (coding isn't really part of most CS subjects contrary to belief). I have a hard time reading theory.

I read this as well.

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  • Welcome here. Could you add more details, about what difficulty you face when reading books that isn't there when reading slides/notes? For instance, do you get bored/distracted, do you find it difficult to follow, or do you not remember what you've read soon after? That may help you get relevant answers. Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 12:38
  • I fail to connect the dots. It seems overwhelming for me to conclude sth by reading. Whereas while reading slides/notes, it is easy for me to conclude and connect the dots. I don't get bored or distracted, I remember what I have studied if I understand but my problem is that I don't even understand. Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 12:39
  • Ok, what level of study are you at now, and have you faced the same difficulty at previous levels too, high school for example? (You could add all these details into the question directly, so its readily accessed). Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 12:42
  • Patience and practice and repetition. Use videos to reinforce what you learn from text. Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 15:29
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    @DanielR.Collins- I think that sth=something. Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 8:18

7 Answers 7

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As you describe what you do, it seems very passive. If that is the case, then that is the root of your problem. Reading is a spectator sport. Learning is an active sport. You don't learn to swim by watching others do it. You get wet.

Videos are also too passive.

For learning you need skills, not facts. The skills are learned through practice. For technical subjects it means solving problems/exercises. Lots of them. It also normally requires feedback on your attempts, which is hard to get from using only books or videos. Seeing a solution to a problem is really nothing like producing a solution for purposes of learning.

Think of your brain as a muscle that needs exercising, not as a sponge that mops up information. Even the "mopping" process of the brain requires repetition and reinforcement.

Ultimately you want insight to emerge from your learning. And you want those insights to last. There are very few people who can gain insight from reading and watching, at least until they become experts.

It took Einstein about ten years (up to about 1900) to achieve the insights that led him to discover relativity. That included reading (about past experimentation), but also many many discussions with others.


See this for more, especially the book reference (Zull) at the bottom.

See this about effective note taking - Hipster PDA.

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    Honestly man, I don't want to be einstein and they are outliers. I will never be even if I try to.. I just want to learn enough to get a job after graduation. I see my inability to learn from text content is going to be a deciding factor between me taking a job or not getting a job. Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 13:01
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    I'm no Einstein either, but I did learn how to learn. And taught it to my students once I realized they weren't very good at it.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 13:06
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    @raveenatandon Are there simulators/emulators that you can use to test your knowledge? Something where you can design something and verify it works? I personally don't feel I 'know' something until I can put it into practice. Simply accumulating information in your head has limited value in any engineering field. I think you need to do something with it or that knowledge will be lost.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Oct 20, 2021 at 20:45
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    @raveenatandon - you don't need to want to be Einstein to get value from knowing how to learn. The example Buffy gave of Einstein was to demonstrate that even the most intelligent people take time to learn. Indeed, knowing how to learn is generally what distinguishes what most people call "geniuses" from other people - it's not that they're inherently more intelligent, it's that they've learned how to learn.
    – Glen O
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 2:00
  • I saw OP's question and was trying to figure out how to suggest Zull's book as well without trying to write a redundant answer. It's really insightful; I got it to better think about how to present material for others, but it ended up also being really useful for thinking about my own learning experience.
    – anjama
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 13:08
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There are two things that help me when I’m reading something too obscure or dense. The first is to teach it to someone else. Giving a lesson requires you to think of some logical order of presenting the information that you’ve read, and it requires that you digest and understand it. If there’s a part of the book that is clearly important enough to convey to someone else but you’re lacking the requisite skills, then you’ve identified an area on which to spend more time.

There’s a middle step that helps me as well, which is to talk about (or even complain about) the book. I find that some sections of a book are so dense that I have trouble understanding them. So, I complain to a friend that is willing to listen. But I don’t just say “I don’t like this book, it’s too hard,” I explain why. Maybe the author doesn’t define their terms well enough, maybe they assume knowledge of something they don’t explain—whatever the case may be, talking about the book can help you identify areas where you need more help.

My second thing is to practice. It may not seem like it, but you will get better if you keep trying. There is no need to keep doing things that are definitely not working, but keep in mind that learning is a skill, which takes practice. Try not to get discouraged if you’re struggling or not getting it. If you’re making your best effort, then it is doing something.

Above all, persevere.

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    I really like the "complain about the book" advice. A lot of times I have found that if I can clearly articulate what I'm stuck on or what I don't like about a given resource, I can then read that resource more carefully to see if that problem is addressed in a way I wasn't expecting, or find another resource without that problem. I suppose the risk is that just complaining without trying to fix the problem is not very productive, but complaining followed by corrective action is great.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 2:29
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    Aka "rubber ducking".
    – Vilx-
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 7:32
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It is worth remembering that course notes/slides are carefully curated from a lot of sources and painstakingly compiled into a form ideal for students to absorb. It is no wonder that following the material and connecting the dots is easy; it is designed to be that way. Likewise, a video lesson is designed to be followed along.

The drawback of this simplicity is that course notes/videos present a limited perspective, whereas the actual subject may be much more messy. Books often embrace the mess and are therefore require more effort to follow along. This effort is the active learning that @Buffy recommends. Some books are notorious for being abstruse, but can be extremely rewarding once you get through them.

Coming to the main question, of how to get better at learning from books, practice is the key. You can be smart about it though; scaffold your reading so that you start with simple sources and build up to more challenging books. If you've understood something from a video lesson, try reading it up from some books. It should be easier since you know the background already. Reading will help you develop the skills of visualizing, assimilating and really thinking. Those skills will come in handy when you later try to read a new topic. It won't happen overnight, but if you keep working at it systematically, you will surely see improvement. A reasonable amount of research shows that overlearning through such techniques does work.

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In addition to advice in the other answers, which is good, I think another approach that helps (especially with self-directed learning) is to have a goal. (I like to think of it as my ulterior motive.) Ideally this is some small project you come up with yourself or with an advisor, but could also include a list of homework or test problems you want to be able to solve.

"Learning python programming" (for example) is great in the abstract, but most real day-to-day python programmers don't have or need an encyclopedic knowledge of every feature in the language. Instead, a good approach is to have a project that interests you that requires python programming. Then, you will be motivated to learn the parts of python you need to accomplish your project.

This has all kinds of advantages. First, the motivation section of textbooks can be very abstract. Very few people are amped up about learning about list comprehensions by reading the first paragraph of a python chapter. But if you have a specific problem that you want to solve that you can tackle with list comprehensions, then you are already motivated to read that chapter. It also forces you to focus on the parts of a book that are useful to you. A textbook is very general and trying to cover many use cases. Having a specific focus lets you narrow down the parts you need to read to the parts you find more interesting. And it will help you to think critically about the text, because in the back of your mind will always be a question about how you can use this information in practice. It also unbinds you from studying one particular text; you are looking for any resource which conveys a particular concept well, and reading multiple sources is a way to increase the robustness of your knowledge. I often find that after several months on a project, I know the particular area I'm interested in as well or better than the way it is presented in any one book. Finally, at the end of your studies, you'll have a completed project, which is a very powerful demonstration to yourself and to others that you have learned something.

This approach won't always work, since sometimes you need to learn a lot of theory to understand the problems you are interested in. But more often than not, I think picking the pieces of a textbook that are most relevant to your interest and focusing on those, is more effective than reading a book cover to cover. You will also likely find over time that you will need to backtrack to fill in details that initially you thought weren't important, or you may end up needing different parts of the book for different projects and eventually covering most parts of a book.

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Personally, I create Anki flashcards for the basic vocabulary, basic notations, and basic diagrams I do not fully understand yet. Then, I'll put the textbook away for two weeks.

Putting the textbook away ensures that there is enough time for the information to automatically get uploaded into my brain using spaced repetition.

Then, I can come back to the book and try to read it again. But this time, reading requires much less mental energy because I've already memorized some of the basic jargon and some of the basic concepts already. This strategy is known as incremental reading.

Then, I'll use deliberate practice and I'll do as many practice exercises as I can. Deliberate practice is not the same as spaced repetition, but it's just as crucial.

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  • Since «putting the textbook away» is a hint to offer breaks where one does not engage active thinking about the topic read, Marty Lobdell's video Study Less Study Smart fits into the perspective provided by your answer.
    – Buttonwood
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 14:58
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Perhaps it stems from less facility for, and/or less practice with, longform text organized in paragraphs. If this is the case, you could try reading denser novels, articles and essays (eg in online magazines for the informed layman). If you already read dense narratives, maybe it gives you a chance to reflect on what is different between them and the nonfiction textbooks and technical articles you want to read more of.

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Starting off a bit tangential... You are not alone.

I don't mean I'm like this as well, quite the opposite - it's utterly incomprehensible to me how a person would prefer a video detailing some problem over text description, provided that text is of a good quality (we also have taught courses to help with textbooks specifically!).

However, I find this increasingly common among my students. In fact, very recently I was completely baffled when instead of following a detailed set of written instructions an undergrad student chose to look up youtube videos of another person performing the task (and reading the selfsame set of instructions while doing so!).

So, to me there are two extremes - one is fighting extremely terse explanations in a textbook having difficulties connecting the dots, another is listening to explanations/watching videos, main pitfall here being that perceived competence is usually a lot higher than real. This, and code bootcamps are two major things mass-producing students who feel they know how to solve real-world problems yet seem completely and utterly stuck when given one. No, it wasn't all dandy in days of yore, rather this kind of imbalance seemed less prevalent.

Given these issues, what is one supposed to do, then? And the answer to that is tried and true by generations upon generations.

Combine the approaches.

It is perfectly reasonable to seek alternative explanations when you don't get something but first, think about the problem yourself. Put the book aside and consider how you would approach it. Get back to book. If stuck, ask professor or a colleague or, indeed, find a video. When you feel like you totally understand something, find or invent an adjacent problem and see if you can solve it (or, at the very least, are not entirely paralyzed by it). Finally, connect the dots yourself: a good book would in all likelihood mention why some theorem is important; your brain needs to connect whatever you learn to what you already know. Thinking of possible implications is probably the single most helpful skill in learning.

Consider how something essential like Calc I was structured: theory/textbooks, lectures with explanations, problems, seminars, more problems... It is like so for a good reason. @Buffy is 100% right here: if you don't get your feet wet, you are just avoiding the hard part of the work and it's going to massively backfire a few years later when you find out that your feeling of understanding the subject was very shallow and you haven't really learned to think well enough to solve problems on your own. Unfortunately, this does happen, quite a lot, and this is not the kind of career you want. So if there is no problem provided that you could try solving with that newly-acquired knowledge, invent one!

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