Use that textbook like a boss.

Look, I sympathize with those of you still in school. I’m happily done, but I won’t laugh at you. I’ll probably be back shortly to rustle up that PhD or another Masters, so I have to be careful with karma. Like many of you, at least the adult members, I’ve been at the school thing for a long time. Like many of you, I’ve forgotten more than should be healthy. In fact, it’s a miracle that any of us know as much as we do about anything, given what a small fraction it is, of what we’ve learned.

This is not to say I was a bad student. I was a good student. I just learned at a different pace, a faster pace than my peers. This meant if I was forced to slow down and go at the normal pace (often), I would be bored out of my wits. I was notorious for what people mistook as half-assing, but was really frustration. That’s not the point. The point is how was I able to absorb more information in less time than most? I had and have a specific method for teaching myself new material, but I want to focus on how I use textbooks.

Ah, the textbook. The second greatest con ever committed on mankind, the first being the Diamond. A worthless rock that’s been manipulated into “rarity” and brainwashed generations of women to believe the man’s profession of love was worthless without a diamond attached. Every semester we pay hundreds or thousands for the damn things. Every few semesters they become worthless because a new edition comes out. This new edition has no difference except a few updated current events and some new questions at the end of the chapter. The textbook has become, with the general cost of education, the greatest indication of what’s wrong with the school system today. So how do we make this thing our bitch? I use the Grip n’ Dip method, named after a sexual move that was named after me.


Know your subject: Some subjects require little more than a perfunctory glance. Even the professors realize it’s a hustle and only assign the book because it’s mandatory. You may never open the book. Other subjects are impossible to use with my method alone. They require brute-force cognition, excessive memorization, and endless repetition. Some examples of this would be computer programming books. My method will help but not get you all the way (well, it comes down to semantics and words like practice vs. problem-solve). For the rest, my method will do the job.


Scheduling: Alright, so you think this subject will benefit from my method (Yes you do. All subjects benefit at least somewhat. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re not in a subject that won’t benefit). You have lots of raw information to process, lots of concepts to link in your mind. You’re ready to start. The next thing you need is a schedule. You can use the syllabus (cover whatever chapter when it will be covered in class). You can also do what I did since I had my own pace, create your own schedule. I prefer to keep it fluid because some chapters will require a bit more leg work than others, and whatever your personal pace is, you still need to sync up with the class. Whatever you do, whenever you’re ready to sit down to the text book, it should always happen before and not after sleep. Sleep is an important piece of the puzzle. What I mean is, you can study whenever, but not when you’ve just woken up. At least not without first warming up. Speaking of sleep, in general, get more of it.


Book Expectations: Now you know when you can hit the book and more importantly by when you HAVE to (let’s face it, you’ll leave it till the last minute). The next step is to understand what you’re expected to understand by the time you’re done. You may have an idea in your head what you should be able to do, but understanding what the publisher or professor intends will help you understand the way the book is laid out. You will need to read two things, the syllabus (where most professors write their expectations for the semester) and the intro/prologue of the book. No need for all of it, just the part that explains the author’s intentions. Make sure you understand this information.


Introduction: Let’s truly begin. These are the steps for each chapter. You will need a paper, laptop, or anything with which to record some fairly basic information. For each chapter you will first read the chapter synopsis. This is the part at the beginning of each chapter that tells you what you should have learned by the end of the chapter. Write this down. Make sure you understand what it is you should be taking away from this chapter. Reword it if you must. Be perfectly clear on the objective. Then read the introduction.


Flit: In most textbooks, throughout the chapters there are highlighted texts, text in bold, definitions in the margins, points of information, etc. You’re going to need to trust your brain to be able to create context.

  1. Read the subheadings. Add those to the place where you wrote down the expectation for the chapter. Reading from the expectation down through the subheadings, a narrative should begin to emerge. (It helps to think of the chapter as telling a story, with the chapter expectations being the destination).
  2. Double back to the beginning and read the subheadings, but this time also read the highlighted parts. That means all the things in bold or italics. Don’t bother with writing in the margins or highlighting text just yet. The publisher has already highlighted what you needed for the most part. We will get to that later. Now add the highlights under the appropriate subheadings to further this conceptual narrative.
  3. Bonus: If this is the sort of subject that has formulae, you will be adding them to the notes with a specific definition or explanation of the type of problem it solves.
  4. If it is a book or chapter with definitions in the side margins, you can now double back to add those definitions to your notes. I would prefer that you separate them and create a different definition databank.


Review and recall: Now you want to read the chapter summary and any definitions at the end of the chapter. No worries, at this point you may feel like you haven’t learned enough and have jumped over too much but you need to trust your brain. How are you going to learn the subject if you have no context? All these steps till now have been building the context, the jargon, and the mental connections you need for where the real learning happens.


Application: Now the real work begins. You can choose to go back over the notes (narrative) you’ve created so far and then do something else or take a nap. When you’re ready to go, you need to go to the end of the chapter and start answering questions or solving problems. A lot will be answerable with just the notes you have so far. Some will require you to dip, but you’ll find mentally that you instinctively know where to find the pieces. You now have context, so you understand the nature of the question. It’s at this point where you can dip in to find exactly what you need in that section of the chapter. That’s the power of this method. It allows you to avoid the fluff and go to the meat, while building mental connections and most importantly, CONTEXT.

Step 7 is the most important part of solidifying what you’ve learned because it is by working actual problems or answering questions that matter that you truly come to understand what’s important about the subject. The other steps are vital for making step 7 happen faster but you can get by on just step 7 alone. In some subjects you don’t actually need step 7 but that’s up to you.


Meditation: I gave this a lofty name but it’s really quite simple. After you’ve worked as many problems as you can (or if you have time, all the problems), this step is simple. Ask yourself: “Did I achieve what the chapter said it wanted me to?” Simply, the expectations of the chapter, read them again. Can you do what it said you should have been able to do by the end? Yes? Good. No? This chapter needs more help. Either work more of the problems (or find more problems) or start the chapter again. Remember, it’s never that it’s too hard or you’re not smart enough. The problem is always that you lack the proper context. Following all the steps again, clarifying the earlier steps, should help. Also look into group studying, talking to the professor, or an SI/TA.

By the end of the semester you will have surprisingly rich notes and rich mental connections that will stay. Remember to always have sleep ahead of you, not behind when you do this. I don’t mean right before bed, I just mean not right after waking up. I would also recommend creating a wiki. The benefit of that is you keep these detailed notes somewhere you can refer back to in other classes that need the refresher, and that mooching classmates can use (unless you make it private). The act of re-adding that info into the wiki helps you to mentally reinforce the connections.

On top of the idea of a wiki, a good method for organizing your notes is the Cornell method of note taking, and the mind map method. It’s really up to you how you write it down. This is more concerned with how you read it.


A quick not on formulae: I like to create separate notes for each formula because it tends to help streamline the problem-solving process. I first create a specific explanation of what the formula is used to solve or find. I then put down a specific definition of what each part of the formula means. I assume you have a basic understanding of algebra and can manipulate any formula, having some parts, to find the value of others. I then map out in the same step-by-step format I’ve done for this guide, how to solve the problem.

i.e. step 1: locate stated speed, plug into ‘s’. Step 2: locate stated distance, plug into “d”. etc. I make it as specific as I can. I usually draw it like a ladder. Sometimes, if needed, I add notes in-between steps/lines or in the margins explaining why or what is happening. By taking the time to memorize these steps and making them an afterthought, I can devote the rest of my energy to linking concepts and learning how to figure out what it is exactly, I’m trying to solve. Barring anything else, if you tell me I need to solve a specific problem, I know how to do so, even if I don’t understand the nature of the problem. This isn’t ideal, but like I said, everything is context. If you lack context, you still need to be able to tackle issues.


Never do this right after waking up. You need as little time between your studying and sleeping as possible. However, too close to bed time and you will just be groggy and that defeats the purpose.

  1. Know if this is a subject that requires dipping or skimming
  2. Decide on a schedule. (Syllabus schedule is usually good enough)
  3. Know what the book expects you to get from it. What the professor expects (syllabus)
  4. For each chapter, know and understand the expectations for that chapter.
  5. Jump into the chapter
    • Read headings
    • Re-read headings but with publishers highlighted text in addition
    • Don’t forget formulae
    • Write down the definitions usually in side margins or footnotes
  6. Read summary and definitions in back of chapter
  7. Do exercises. This includes end of chapter problems, in-chapter exercises and examples.
  8. Meditate on it. Ask yourself if you can solve or do what the chapter expected you would be able to do at the end.

Good Luck.

6 thoughts on “Use that textbook like a boss.”

  1. To an extent I do some variation of this, depending on the subject. But helpful, now you need an article on how to stay on task throughout the semester. I find most people including myself, start a semester well like this but midway through the system breaks down which results in cramming at the last minute right before exams, like I am now.

    1. Hmm… just saw this. Didn’t get a notification… 8 months ago… I guess there’s no time like the present to write something up. I’ll get on it.

  2. Pingback: Learn Faster, Learn Better

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