How to Tackle a Textbook: A Workflow

A post detailing how one might go about reading a textbook effectively.

How To
Author

Je Sian Keith Herman

Published

July 17, 2021

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” —Lao Tzu

Introduction

Say you have this ambitious goal of learning a difficult subject like calculus by reading a textbook. How are you going to go about it? When you think of doing such a project, you feel it is large and quite daunting. You do not know where to start. Luckily, you have taken the popular online course “Learning How to Learn” on Coursera and have already the basic ideas down. So, let us start putting those together for the project and let me show you how I would do that.

Planning

Break Down the Project into Smaller Actionable Tasks

The first thing to do when tackling a big project such as this is to break it down into smaller bite-sized tasks to make it less daunting and to avoid procrastination on your part. The textbook is separated into parts, then chapters, then sections, and lastly pages. We do not want our tasks to be so small that it would be cumbersome to check them off our to-do list but just enough that it seems logical for us to start working on it without great resistance. Personally, I prefer having my tasks for this kind of project at the chapter level like “Read Chapter 1 - Introduction”, or even by cluster of sections if a chapter is too long.

Speaking of tasks, there might be a lot of them we need to keep track of so it would be best that we enlist the help of a planner or journal. I use Todoist and Google Calendar for this kind of project/task management. It is also fine not to list every chapter/section of the book as a task because those can still be added later.

Scheduling

Now that we have our tasks it is time to schedule them. To do this, every night before I go to bed I process my tasks, just like what was recommended in the course. By doing this, you can free up your working memory tomorrow for other more important things. Your tasks are instead replaced with the chunk “Check my Planner for today’s tasks” (Todoist in my case).

This habit also sets some structure up for you tomorrow. Instead of having a vague list in your head or scattered notes, you have a clear idea of which tasks you are going to handle first. No hesitations, just getting things done. I personally recommend eating your frogs first because (a) your mind works best in the morning (after a night of your brain cleaning up junk up there) and (b) as Brian Tracey says, “If you have to eat a live Frog at all, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it for very long.” This is just asking for you to procrastinate and you would not want to do the hard things at the end of the day when you are tired, and willpower is running low. You would also like to have time for guilt-free relaxation every day, right? Do not underestimate the guilt because it is very real (see the Zeigarnik effect and Ovsiankina effect).

A notebook with a to do list. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.

Speaking of relaxation, do not forget to give yourself some pats on the back from time to time. Give yourself rewards for your good work done. You would not like it if you were just made to work without any good incentive (even “social conscience” is an incentive in volunteerism). Stop treating yourself like a prisoner on an endless torture treadmill. And besides, good rewards drive the best habits. We want to get into the habit of doing work we enjoy or tolerate enough to get done. Breaks and rewards are essential to your physical and mental health. So, make sure to eat your frogs and give yourself that guilt-free indulgence in the pleasures of life.

Going back, we have not yet dealt with when you are now going to do the task, especially those pesky frogs. You are not immune yet to procrastination, to the unpleasant feelings that will inevitably come when you start doing the task. The best way to combat that is to shift your focus away from the product/outcome (finish the chapter) towards to the process (read the chapter for 25 minutes). The Pomodoro technique will help you a lot with this. The technique is basically setting a timer for 25 minutes and you will just focus on one task for that specific period, nothing else. The emphasis is on the time and not the stress of finishing faster to get to the outcome.

Moreover, “read a chapter” just seems to be too big of a task that it is discouraging. On the other hand, reading the chapter for 25 minutes is easier. You can decrease the timer if 25 minutes is still too much. Furthermore, the technique also calls for breaks (usually 5 minutes) in between the 25-minute Pomodoro sessions. This works for us because we need breaks, and we perform greatly when we have them. Breaks also get us into a diffuse mode of thinking and help us improve ideas we learned even more by connecting them to other less related ideas.

Approach

Spaced Repetition and Flashcards

Now onto dealing with the specifics of studying. To instill the daily habit of learning even further, let us make use of the Spaced Repetition, especially with the help of the program Anki. Any important detail goes into Anki and is made a flashcard so we can take advantage of spaced repetition. Have concepts you want memorized? Boom, Done. Formulas? Boom, Done. The names of the people you meet. Boom, also done. Now each day you only have to think about opening Anki and going through your flashcards to study a large part of your lessons. This frees up more space for our working memory. Yay!

Note-taking

In taking notes it is important that we do not just read passively or highlight things. What I suggest doing is to use the benefits of recall (like what we did with flashcards earlier) to our advantage. We can do this by using a slightly modified Cornell note-taking method.1 During a lecture or when reading a textbook chapter, we only take brief notes on important ideas so that we are more focused only on understanding what is currently in front of us instead of wasting our precious working memory space with miscellaneous tasks like formatting our notes or plain copy-pasta.

  • 1 Pauk, Walter; Owens, Ross J. Q. (2010). How to Study in College (10 ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth. ISBN 978-1-4390-8446-5. Chapter 10: “The Cornell System: Take Effective Notes”, pp. 235-277

  • It goes like this… If you have a part with concepts that says something like:

    “…the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that a spontaneous process increases the entropy of a system.”

    We can simply just have our notes during the lecture or when reading as:

    • The Second Law of Thermodynamics
    • Entropy

    For equations or formulas, we can just have them as:

    The Clapeyron Equation \[\frac{dP}{dT} = \frac{\Delta_{\text{trs}}S}{\Delta_{\text{trs}}V}\]

    or

    Common Derivatives \[\frac{d}{dx} \left( x^n \right) = nx^{n-1}\]

    After we are done reading for the day or with the lecture, we then process our notes. We go back and try to explain the concepts and equations we have jotted down. This is the reason we did not write the full definition/explanation earlier so that we could apply the Feynman Technique. At the same time, we can figure out which things we do not understand and focus on that (deliberate practice). It is two birds with one stone.

    Again, we can also transform our notes into flashcards and put them inside Anki, like so:

    Example Concept

    Original:

    “The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that a spontaneous process increases the entropy of a system.”

    Generated Cloze Flashcards

    Generated:

    “The _____ states that a spontaneous process increases the entropy of a system.”

    “The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that _____.”

    We get both ways in contrast, and it is easy to create these flashcards in Anki with Cloze note types and keyboard shortcuts. We can also do this for formulas:

    Math Flashcard

    \[\frac{d}{dx} \left( x^n \right) = \\ ?\]

    We can also make better flashcards by using images and mnemonics. For even greater effect we can link ideas together by adopting the use of the Zettelkasten method but this is a post for another day.

    This may all seem great, but Anki may not help you much in problem-solving, especially in subjects that are math-heavy and technical. What you can do to improve your problem-solving skills is to practice answering problem sets. This is also a form of recall as mini testing. By doing problem sets, you build chunks of the procedures needed for many types of problems that you encounter. And, if you interleave many different problem types, your understanding becomes much better.

    Conclusion

    Undertaking a huge project such as reading a full textbook on a subject can be daunting. However, if you can break it down into simpler tasks and use all of what you have at your disposal to increase our chances then it might not be so daunting, after all. You just need to do a little work each day to learn. And, in this post you got a glimpse of how you could tackle any textbook on a subject or even others without a textbook.