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How to Read a Textbook (2003) (cuesta.edu)
95 points by ofou 6 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 16 comments





This kind of meta reading strategy never worked for me. My real strategy 1) be deeply curious and motivated about what you’re learning. If you cannot do that, trick yourself into caring, if that fails ask yourself why you are learning it in the first place.

Same, they always seem to basically reduce to rereading it multiple times which I just can't really stomach. I'll reread a paragraph if I don't understand it the first time, but I'm not going to set out to read a thick textbook three times at once.

Certainly, this comment mostly applies to undergraduate and below education. If I'm actually interested in a topic that is my passion and career then the benefit from rereading something a few times may actually be worth it. In school, people for some reason expect you to do this for 4-8 textbooks at once when frankly the subject matter is not that difficult, which is what soured me on the idea.

There's also the classic “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

A classic and personal favourite. Adler also addresses different techniques applicable to different types of works --- not all books, or textbooks, are created equal. Approaches differ.

I like this. I have used some versions of this, and suspect the full outline is only necessary when you’re encountering a subject for which you lack prior knowledge and/or have little interest going into the text.

The text which is _easiest to read_ is the subject for which you have the greatest interest. Given this insight I imagine this as a useful tool for the reader to find their interest, or to humanize the practice and find sympathy with its practitioners.

“While reading […] Highlight, mark or underline key information mentioned in the survey.”

I do not agree with defacing a text. In my experience a text unfolds to you with multiple readings. To go the nuclear option of permanent highlighter marks is to affix on the text your naive first readings.

Marginalia is much better in because they don’t interrupt the text, but live alongside.

I believe this so much I wrote this one page PDF and share it with my friends:

https://docs.google.com/drawings/d/139g4uFXFCL1ZYrcWKTShbPsw...


Advice from Paul N. Edwards has been very helpful for me in this regard: https://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtoread.pdf

I think this really varies by subject. If you are reading a math textbook with exercises, you can just read the chapter however you want, and do the exercises. Anything you don't understand, you'll be forced to understand by solving the problems.

Similarly, if you're reading a computer science textbook, you really need to be writing code that puts your learning into practice, or solving algorithmic problems that use the subject matter.

This advice is better when you're just trying to remember stuff that you read in a textbook, rather than gaining a deeper understanding.


Wow, this site has a lot of self-study resources. I've been sort of chicken pecking at books about learning to try to extract ideas, like stuff by Barbara Oakley, etc.

Even the Wikipedia page on "evidence-based learning" only discusses three things: spaced repetition (Anki), n-back training and some weird ambiguous behavioral thing called errorless learning.

I've also continually scoured HN and Reddit for tips.

Does anyone have any hidden knowledge to share? My current experiment is a tweak of memory palaces. I take a route in my city that I know well, that I can picture myself traversing. I then mark monuments on the path. I then mentally attach items to the path. Finally, I take a screenshot of the path and manually label each milestone with the associated piece of information.

So far I've managed to memorize 19 items related to Javascript proxies this way, after a single session.


I have experimented with memory systems some and used SRSs extensively to learn foreign languages. I also use SRSs for more obscure programming stuff. The hardest thing is knowing what you need to remember. I have not had any success with memory palace techniques with programming as they are for memorizing lists in order and programming requires understanding concepts more at random.

Yeah, same here. I've been able to learn new tools quickly with SRS, for example GraphQL. My usual method is to wrestle with the tool until I get stuck. SRS for GraphQL gave me a much better framework for what to ask when I got stuck.

I'm going to try memory palaces for programming ideas. I'm thinking of sequential book-style information. For example, what I think I will do is hook each paragraph or section to a landmark by concocting a question about the section. That might help with the "synthesis" portion of comprehension.

I imagine that this will result in either shit rote-knowledge, or an abundance of new ideas and connections.

Btw, I successfully impressed my wife by memorizing a 15-digit number of her making in a span of less than 5 minutes. If anything, this is going to be a cool party trick lol


Time to do this - a minimum of one week. Learn all the contents of a chapter over a period of one week. This includes answering the questions at the end of the chapter. If you happen to finish the contents before the end of the week, rest and start the next chapter the following week.

A strategy that actually works: read the book through, even if there are many things you do not understand. Do it again and again until you get the majority. Everything you encounter now feels familiar in a sense, and you can go in depth with the literature

If there are parts of the text that resist you after 2--3 re-readings, look up alternate sources which cover the same point.

In particular, I'd recommend finding the first/foundational work (usually cited in the textbook itself), and reading that. One reason that foundational works are foundational is often that they manage to effectively communicate a concept to a large population. That is, not are they theoretically novel and groundbreaking but they are rhetorically competent. Re-tellings by others are often inferior.

(This isn't always the case, but it is often enough that it's a useful tip to keep in mind.)

Otherwise, look to see what other references are included in the text, and try reading the relevant sections of these. Today those are often available via the Internet Archive for check-out, or you can simply download books from Library Genesis / ZLibrary, or articles from those sources or Sci-Hub.


I am a 35-year-old person, and I have spent at least 5 years now trying to figure out how to read for comprehension and retention. There is no simple solution, but I do think people discount "familiarity". The truth is that it is tough, and it is slow.

I also found this helpful: "The single most helpful thing in figuring out what to write down was noticing when my reading was slowing down, which typically meant either there was a particular fact that needed to be moved from short to long term storage, or that I needed to think about something." Here is the source: https://acesounderglass.com/2020/06/10/what-to-write-down-wh...


"Start at the very beginning, A very good place to start."



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