Thoughts on the Approach to Reading Textbooks
I was originally going to discuss reading textbooks at length in my previous post, but decided there was simply too much to say, so I’ve moved this content into its own post.
Most module organisers will provide a recommended reading list, which will cover the content seen in lectures at greater depth, as well as going beyond what the lecturer has time to include. Most of the time, the lecture slides (and lab sheets) should cover all the content you will need for exams and/or coursework. However, it may sometimes be the case that having a more detailed explanation of a topic can make it easier to understand, and some of my module organisers (naming no names) were happy to write exams which ‘rewarded knowledge beyond the lectures’. Admittedly, there are more cynically efficient ways to prepare for an exam, but if you’re fortunate enough to enjoy the content you’re studying, you might enjoy reading about more of it as well!
One caveat is that you need to be aware of the right technique for reading textbooks. I initially attempted to meticulously read the whole of the main textbook for each module, keeping pace with progress through the lectures, week-to-week. This very quickly became impractical, since textbooks are really long. What I needed to realise sooner that you need to read textbooks with a specific intent about what you’re trying to get out of them. This is a tricky balance, since if you already knew exactly what you needed from a textbook, you probably wouldn’t need to read it! Select individual chapters, sections or even paragraphs that you think will be relevant and/or interesting, and focus on them.
If you want to get fancy, you could try an active engagement framework like PRR. A brief summary of the technique follows:
- Preview: Consider the structural outline of the content, as well as biographical context. Skim-read and try to summarise the section.
- Read: Focus on one suitably small chapter/section/paragraph at a time, with breaks, to maintain concentration.
- Recall: Go over what you’ve read, making notes and highlights.
Obviously you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) write marginalia or highlight content in a library book, so these will need to go elsewhere. I’ve enjoyed using 6×4-inch note/record cards for this (in portrait orientation to fit in more lines of -brief!- notes), with page or section numbers to indicate where in a book a note refers to. These can double up as book-marks as well! (This is part of an excessively convoluted note-taking system which I may or may not wish to discuss further in the future.)
Doing things this way means I can easily see all my notes on a book in one place, and they are independent of a particular copy (physical or digital) of a book (this is especially great with library books since if you put one back you might not get the same copy next time you go to read it). If a book (or article) has short (ideally numbered) sub-sections, referring to these instead of page numbers could make it possible to have a reference to where a note refers to which is consistent between different editions or formats. Sections will usually be longer than a page, making the point of reference less precise, so there are pros and cons to both schemes.
Another thing to note is that textbooks don’t need to be read linearly like a novel; some even have graphs showing which chapters depend on others. A blessing of library books is that they’re free to read, so there’s no sunk cost that might otherwise compel you to read the whole thing.
The library offers digital versions of some books. My opinion is that if you’re going to read a book, it should really be physical. What the system offers is, at best, PDFs of whole books, or -more commonly- a restricted access that allows you to either download a PDF of a single chapter or read the whole book in an painfully slow web interface. In either case, the formatting of books (and most academic articles/PDFs) is optimised for reading in physical form. Needing to navigate pages and vast margins on a screen is a chore, and the content cannot scale to fit the device you are using to read.
I will admit that hyperlinked tables of content and cross-references can be more convenient for jumping about quickly, but in that case a web-based format would be even better!
Another more dubious virtue of reading physical books is that it represents a rare opportunity for me, as a Computer Science student, to not use my computer while working. The fact that a book is a book, and not also a portal to innumerable distractions, makes it easier to focus on actually taking in the content. See my post on note-taking for more discussion of digital vs physical.
The university library operates a borrowing policy which (without a point of reference) seems highly generous to me. You can borrow as many books as you want, for as long as you want, provided nobody else requests a hold on one you have. Even when that happens (which becomes more likely for module textbooks as exams approach), you can keep the book until the end of the current renewal period (which is usually 2 weeks, or 3 days in some cases). Since it’s possible to renew loans on the library website within minutes, you can even keep 3-day loan books out for weeks (as I did with the particularly useful Professional Skills textbook).
I will also make a quick mention of the Westwood Library Book return box, outside the entrance to the café. While staying at Westwood, I was able to deposit books there, rather than having to transport them all back to the library. This made it much more feasible for me to have a lot of library books out at once.
Remember: The hold system exists, so be as selfish as you like with library books.