There's perhaps a better title for this question, but I can't immediate think of one - suggestions for amendment welcome.

I'd like to clarify the purpose of reading textbooks. It sounds obvious at first, but what I mean is opaque to me.

I'm currently reading a textbook describing ~35 problem-solving and improvement methods, as part of this course. It is densely packed with definitions, ideas, procedures etc. I'm highlighting as I go through and occasionally making notes in the margins.

When I finish reading, I barely remember what I've just read, let alone what I've learned. If I was asked to describe the characteristics of a technique I've just read about, I would struggle to put forward a coherent and strong answer.

Even if I condense my notes and read through them, the problem remains - there are too many 'facts' to learn, remember and regurgitate.

This leads me to ask what the purpose of reading textbooks is. Is it to learn and understand 'facts' and be able to remember them? Or is it to learn and understand? That is, it doesn't necessarily matter if you can't remember, so long as you can understand ideas when you revisit them and can argue them in your work.

For clarity, I'm a distance-learning student with The Open University, so the textbook I'm referring to isn't a traditional textbook, but one that is perhaps closely identified by F'x as a coursework book. These books are used in place of lectures, and so are meant to be read in a linear fashion on a week-by-week basis.

  • 3
    Perhaps a better question might be not What is the purpose of reading a textbook?, but What is the best way to read a textbook? Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 8:02
  • Done! Also updated the question for context.
    – James
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 14:54
  • 1
    See my answer to a similar question.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 18:16
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/866/…
    – Bravo
    Commented Mar 9, 2013 at 12:42
  • I'm surprised that no one's suggested that you ask the course organizers on how this material might show up in an exam. Knowing names/definitions/procedures may gain you more points.
    – mkennedy
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 12:30

10 Answers 10


The answer to your question is that there is no point in "brute forcing" through a text book in this manner, unless you're cramming for an examination.

Do not read textbooks in this way, especially if you do not own them. If you borrow a textbook from the library, and then read it cover to cover, and not remember anything, that is a waste of time.

Good textbooks are worth owning, which implies that they will be in your possession for years. You can use them for reference, and study them over the years in piecemeal fashion as your wandering interest returns to the topics from time to time.

If you really want to absorb the material in your textbook, you must do the chapter exercises. You can give yourself a course by going through the book, or you can spread this over years.

Maybe the book is a real tour de force on the subject matter and requires a lot of commitment, such that if you put in the commitment, you become an authority on those problem-solving methods. Is that something you want for yourself, though?

The important thing to memorize from your textbooks is just enough of a summary of the ideas that when you encounter some idea in the world, you can remember which of your textbooks has something to say about that topic.

For instance, this book, let's call it Foobley and Bings, has 35 problem-solving methods. Can you remember enough about the gist of the methods so that when you see a problem, you can think "Aha! This problem has a general pattern which fits one of the problem-solving methods in Foobley and Bings." Even if you don't remember the details of the problem-solving method, this can be a big time saver, and the fact that you recognize the pattern shows that you have knowledge. (Even Foobley and Bings themselves may have to crack open their own book to solve that same problem, if they haven't touched the material in years. Maybe the wrote the book to "unload" it from their brains to "make room" for something else, while having something to refer to.)

  • Your answer seems closest to what I'm trying to appreciate. Having read the material in my book, I can recognise some instances with characteristics that might benefit from the application of a particular technique or at least a family of techniques, but I won't be able to remember the name or describe it usefully.
    – James
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 15:04

It might helpful to change the question slightly, into

What is the purpose of writing a textbook?

Usually a textbook is written to lay out a fairly well codified body of knowledge about a topic. The "well codified" part is important: it's expected that this body of knowledge has some lasting value. The textbook is also written (hopefully) in a way that *teaches this knowledge, as opposed to merely dumping it out.

To me it sounds like the book you're reading is of the second kind (a dump of facts). Such a textbook is better treated as a reference book, like a dictionary. No one reads a dictionary (unless they're trying to pass the GRE or win a spelling bee :)), but they will refer to it to get the meanings of words.

Similarly, with a book that describes 35 problem solving methods, maybe reading it cover to cover isn't the best strategy. Rather, you should focus on a few techniques (or even one) and try to understand that well. Then put the book away and revisit it from time to time.

So to answer your question:

A textbook can be a collection of facts, but often it's more than that: it's a path through the facts that provides a structure with which to process the facts. The goal of reading (and learning) is to acquire both the facts AND the structure. The facts will be easier to remember if you have the structure in place, and the structure makes more sense with the facts as examples.

  • Presumably by structure, you're referring to the sections of the book (chapters/ sections, headings, sub-headings, lists etc)? Even if you understand it, is it still the case that you need to be able to remember the structure without being prompted?
    – James
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 14:58
  • 2
    The structure of the book itself relates to the structure of the material (hopefully), but I'm really talking about the structure of the material.
    – Suresh
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 17:32
  • +1 for the last box. @James: think of structure like the category box at every Wikipedia article.
    – Ooker
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 14:32

There are many many different types of textbooks, and they have very different goals. Off the top of my head, I can list the following three main kinds:

  • Coursework book, used as reference material for learning a rather broad topic. You expect it to bring a general introduction of the techniques in one field, broad overview, enough to understand the challenges in the field, identify the most common solutions and be able to work them on your own. This will surely include many problem sets, with or without solutions. It is also typical for this type of book to “highlight” some of the content, which the author deem essential for the reader to learn.

  • “State of the art” book. They can be very different in scope, content and style of presentation. They exist to give a summary of the extent of knowledge on a given topic. They are written for experts and wannabe-experts, so more attention is usually given to correctness than than pedagogy. Such work is useful not only because of the text itself, but also because it usually offers a large number of references to seminal and important papers in the field, which offer you a good way to get started. As such, they're also useful to people who are already experts, they give good references for common knowledge (“hey, I know it was established in the 1980’s that co-enzyme X accounts for a nontrivial part of this metabolic pathway, but I wonder who did that work… let's check”).

  • Reference book. In the most extreme case, it's like a dictionary: examples of such are the Abramowitz and Stegun or the CRC Handbook. Those are not usually called “textbooks”. This is not something you're supposed to read from A to Z, but rather open when you have need.

In the first two cases, if the textbook includes problem sets (or exercises), you should do them. For real, without looking at the answers until you're finished. If you're stuck, give it some time, then come back. Don't give up. This is where you'll learn the most.

  • 1
    +1 for doing exercises. Reading a textbook has little value unless you immediately practise what you've learned. The goal of reading a textbook is to be able to solve problems in a particular field.
    – Petr
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 7:55

You should be getting several things out of this on the first pass

  • That there are many variation on this theme
  • That the problem has odd corners where a specialized approach is much better than a general approach
  • You should recall some of the more important ways of categorizing the problem in order to select an approach.
  • You should probably remember a couple of the most general methods and their limitations.

On subsequent reads--and you won't master a complicated field without going over it several times--you should have a better idea of what to be looking for and should start concentrating on either the kinds of problems you expect to deal with (if you know and/or are doing independent research) or the kinds of problems that your instructor indicates will be important.

  • Thanks for your reply, dmckee. Just to clarify, when you mention 'problems', are you referring to the ideas set out in the books?
    – James
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 19:16
  • It sounded to me that you're reading about the solutions to some set of real world problems (or perhaps the abstract mathematical problems you end up with when attacking the real world issues). Those are the "problems" in my answer. Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 19:23
  • Ah, I see. I've updated my question to clarify the context (the book is about actual 'problem-solving', rather than a specific set of problems to solve).
    – James
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 15:01
  • Most of the above comments still apply: there are many tools and they have different strengths, though now you have to rely on art, experience and intuition to select the tool rather than being able to categorize them in a objective way. Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 15:17

Reading a textbook is reading for academical purposes. In many ways this is very different from reading for leisure.

Unfortunately, they don't teach you that in your first days at university, thus many students still try to read ALL books on a reading list from A to Z - and fail.

What really differentiates academic from leisural reading is, that you have four phases:

  1. Prepare what you will read - What questions should the textbook answer?
  2. Academic Reading itself - Read only the text that may answer your questions. Read it, mark elements, take notes, read again until you got the gist.
  3. Post-processing of what you read - Did the text answer your question?
  4. Application of what you read - Academic reading is the basis for academic writing, so archive your notes, tag them, classify them.
  • In terms of "what questions should the textbook answer", should cues be taken from the 'aims' and 'outcomes' of a course? This question seems a bit silly, having read it to myself, but I'd like to be clear.
    – James
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 2:30

I read something about this issue a long time ago:

When you read a book and then forget all the content, what remains is Intelligence.

Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of the person who wrote this;-)) Do not worry about forgetting details, something will settle in your mind. Besides, reading a book (whatever it is) is an exercise for your brain and makes you smarter over the time. But I agree with others, most of the time it is not wise to read a text book from cover to cover.


To paraphrase what I was often told at university: a good higher education won't teach you everything you need to know, but it will teach you how best to find it. Even a passing familiarity with the literature on any given topic is a good start down that path.


I follow this cycle. YMMV. For me, if I am able to solve all exercises then I am good about it.

  1. First I start with reading Wikipedia page [for ex. Process Synchronization]
  2. Then I try to think about it in practical scenarios
  3. Then I read the course book which is suggested by my university. I underline important points
  4. I start solving exercises. Usually I will have answers manuals too, so first I just check whether I am doing correctly or not.
  5. If I am not able to solve a question, then I mark down the words which are specified/related to the question & read them all.
  6. Try solving the question again.
  7. Repeat it till you get the idea, doesn't matter actually if you come up with a wrong answer, but approach should be right
  8. Read reference books on same topics & underline new points found
  9. Prepare short notes of underlines points & important keywords
  10. Try to write everything in own words.

When I read a textbook, I read through an entire chapter quickly, just getting an overview of what will be shown and then go back through the chapter section by section, doing exercises (if the book has them) and trying out each idea to make sure it fits in with what I already know.

I try to link it to something I already understand well, so that the knowledge "sticks". Drawings at this stage nearly always help me. Especially if they're strange links; My mind seems to be better at remembering very odd things.

Once I'm done with a chapter, I revisit it about 20 minutes later, then an hour later, then a day, a week, and a month later. Once the month repetition is done, I tend to find that I can remember everything in that chapter.

Perhaps a little long winded, especially the repetition, but it has been said that repetition is the mother of learning.

Scott H Young has some excellent resources on how to study textbooks. He seems to be very, very good at learning. His free chapter of "Learn more, study less" has some excellent tips in.


This is the wrong way around. To understand you need to have the (relevant, important) facts at hand. So "knowing facts" comes before (is a lesser ability) than "understanding". Also, "understanding" includes weeding out the irrelevant facts.

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