Your textbook is a tool. Don’t save it — use it!  You’ll learn a lot more efficiently if you do.

Writing in your textbooks is not the only study technique you should use. However, it’s a good first step towards making clear notes and study sheets to work from.

Highlighting too much

The most common problems with highlighting are highlighting too much, and highlighting too little. How do you know how much highlighting is enough?

The truth is, it’s hard to tell. Until you get your first tests and quizzes, you don’t really know whether your instructors will focus on major concepts or ask you to recall specific details. To be safe, you really need to learn both. However, that doesn’t mean that you should just go ahead and highlight everything that seems important. Your whole page will be yellow, and highlighting won’t help you at all then.

Instead, use two colours of highlighting. Highlight the main ideas in one colour and the supporting details in another. That way you will always be able to quickly find and study the main ideas.

Highlighting too little

Some people have the opposite problem. They highlight the keywords, for example, the topics. When they read the highlighting, it’s just a bunch of words on a page. The ideas behind the words aren’t clear, and then they have to reread the whole passage again.

Highlighting the right amount

The way to prevent this is to make sure that you are clear about what the main idea is before you start to highlight. Then choose the words that express the main idea exactly. It’s a good idea to keep it as simple as you can, skipping over unnecessary words like some adjectives, adverbs, or function words (articles, some prepositions). However, when you reread your highlighting, the main idea should make sense.

Check with a friend

A good way to check your own highlighting is to share your work with a friend.  Only read the highlighting, skipping over everything else. Can you read his or her highlighting and understand the main ideas? Can he or she understand your highlighting?

Margin notes

There are different styles of margin notes, and each one has something different to offer.

Some people use the margins to make short notes about the main idea. This simplifies the main idea even more and puts it in just a couple of words. If you do this, it will be very easy for you to make short study sheets from later. Just copy your margin notes. Test yourself to see if you can remember the main ideas and details just based on those short margin notes. If you can, you’re probably ready for the test.

A second style of margin note is more like having a conversation with the textbook. Using this method, you use symbols to indicate what you thought when you were reading the textbook. This helps you to think critically about the reading and can help you remember the ideas better. Here are some examples of symbols that some people use:

* — this is important

! — this is important OR this is surprising

TQ — this seems like a test question

LECT — this relates to what the instructor lectured about

PP — this relates to something in the PowerPoint notes we got

ex — this is an example

def’n — this is a definition

? — I don’t really understand this part

” — this is a quote that I might want to memorize to use as evidence
You can make up your own symbols to mean anything you want, but remember to be consistent so that in a few months you still understand what you wrote.