How to Take Notes from a Textbook the Right Way

How to Take Notes from a Textbook the Right Way

“Ms. P, I didn’t do well on the quiz. I read the book, but didn’t remember stuff from the reading.”

“Did you take notes on the reading?”


“How come?”

“Um, well, I not really sure how to take notes from the textbook. When I try, I just end up writing everything down and it takes forever.”

Note-taking | Take notes from textbook | Textbook Reading | #notetaking

Note-taking | Take notes from textbook | Textbook Reading | #notetaking

I always recommend that my students take notes from the textbook, especially in AP and IB courses. The tests cover more content than the teacher can talk about in class. Students have to learn some of the facts on their own. In my teaching experience, students who took notes on the assigned reading almost always did better on quizzes and tests.

However, many students struggle taking notes from the book. Textbooks can be intimidating. They tend to be huge, written in a small font, never have enough pictures, and are (admittedly) BO-RING! Most AP and IB texts are college-level textbooks. The language can be difficult for many students. Yet, textbooks are an invaluable resource and teens need to learn how to use the textbook to their advantage.

Just a note! This post is part of a series on note-taking. Check out the other posts below:

Before we dive into mistakes and best practices, grab my free checklist. Print it out and keep it in your notebook to reference when you’re ready to take notes from the textbook!

How to Take Notes from a Textbook

take notes textbook

Mistakes when taking notes

Over the years, I noticed students making the same mistakes over and over again when taking notes from the textbook.

Writing everything down

An important part of note taking is narrowing down the information. Think of the textbook as a fire hose – if you try to drink from it, it will push you down to the ground.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Think of the textbook as a fire hose – if you try to drink from it, it will push you down to the ground.” quote=”Think of the textbook as a fire hose – if you try to drink from it, it will push you down to the ground.”]

Your notes need to be more like a water fountain. Get rid of the excess detail and take notes on the core information. That is easier said than done, though. I’ll walk you through the process further down.

Copying directly from the book

I see this all the time and it drives me nuts! Students often just copy a sentence from the text, not really understanding what it means. It would be like writing a sentence from a French textbook (even though you don’t speak the language) and then trying to use that sentence to study from. It doesn’t help you learn the information at all!

Copying the language also skips the most important step in note-taking, which is paraphrasing. Research shows that paraphrasing information helps you to learn and understand it better. 

Ignoring the book’s cues

Most students tell me that they can’t figure out what to write down, thus they write down everything. When taking notes in class, teachers often give obvious verbal or physical cues that students should write down a piece of information (“So, the causes of the war were . . .”).  Your textbook isn’t speaking to you, but it has its own cues that it gives. You just have to understand those cues.

Textbooks are organized with a series of headings and subheadings that make note taking straight-forward. The size and color of those headings are cues to the reader that a topic is more or less important. The bigger the heading, the more important the topic. The text will also put words in bold or italics – those are often vocabulary terms.

Before we get started on the good stuff, grab my checklist below. Print it out and keep it next to you while taking notes. Keep yourself on track while you make new note-taking habits!

How to Take Notes from a Textbook the Right Way

Now that you’ve seen the major mistakes most teens make, let’s dive into how to take notes from the textbook the right way.

Skim the chapter for heading, subheadings, and terms in bold.

Read the introduction and conclusion – they can help you figure out which topics are the most important and how the information fits together. 

take notes textbook
Beck, Roger B. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub., 2012. Print.

In the example above, notice the main headings circled in blue and the sub-headings in purple. This textbook has vocabulary terms in blue.

Make an outline

Use just the headings and subheadings to create an outline, mindmap, or Cornell notes. Leave extra space so you can write in your notes later.

take notes textbook

In the two examples above, notice that the headings from the book were used as headings for the notes. There is also plenty of space left to take notes in.

  • Start reading from the beginning. Read each section and fill in your outline when you finish that section. In other words, don’t read the entire chapter and then go back to take notes. Flipping back and forth among the pages wastes time.
  • After reading the section, close the book and write down notes from memory! Stretching your brain like this means you are more likely to remember the information on the test. 
  • Then open the book back up and check your notes. Fix any mistakes and add any missing information. (Psst- this is a learning strategy called retrieval practice.)
  • Be sure to add people, places, or terms that are in bold or italics– the text’s authors are telling you this is important information.
  • Don’t copy from the book; paraphrase into your own words. This is the hardest part and will take a while in the beginning. But believe me, it’s worth the time investment! 

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Pro tip – If you don’t understand a sentence, read it out loud a few times.” quote=”Pro tip – If you don’t understand a sentence, read it out loud a few times.”]

Great – you’ve read the entire chapter and taken notes. However, you’re not done! These notes, like class notes, will become powerful study tools with just a few tweaks.

  • Annotate your notes (write in the margins) with review questions, connections to other classes, or questions you have for the teacher.
  • Add small drawings or doodles to your notes that help explain the information.
  • Write a short summary at the end. Write 2-4 sentences that discuss the “big idea” you can take away from these notes.

If you didn’t grab the checklist already, sign up for it now! 

Try these techniques for your next reading assignments and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Related Posts: Learn How to Improve Your Study SkillsHow to Take Notes Like a Pro3 Note Taking Styles for Students, How to Take Notes Faster, How to Paraphrase Your Notes and Learn More

14 thoughts on “How to Take Notes from a Textbook the Right Way”

  • Hello Louisa
    I really loved what you’ve said and it’s 100% true for me, I have the same problem of copying directly from the book and I am really stressed because I don’t know how to solve it plus I end up forgetting everything and when it comes to exams I fail… So can you please give me more information on how to get the main points and stuff like that?


  • Hi,
    This article was super helpful especially when it comes to prepping for tough exams. One method I’ve recently tried is making web maps and charts, just to visually organize the information. Also, highlighting by color, with pink for places, blue for people, and so on. Bullet points have been a huge help too.
    Thanks so much,

  • This is helping me a ton for my biology and politics class right now but I am a little bummed that I couldnt find the checklist you talked about.

  • Hey! This article helped me a lot! I ended up writing the entire chapters from a college textbook and still managed to fail the quizzes on them. My only question is, my textbook it definitely written for older eyes and I’m only 16 (so I already struggle to understand some of the information). How do I pick out the main points? Everything in the book sounds important and I never seem to write the right notes. I’ll write what I think is important down, but then the quiz will be on completely different things. This happened twice and this course is going on my college transcript. I’m not sure what to do. I think the ideas you gave in this post could be really helpful, but I need to save time as I usually have to read two chapters in one day, each chapter being 40 pages long. It’s really overwhelming and I just need a way to condense the important information so I’m not writing around 40 pages of notes a day. Thanks!

    • Liz I feel you I am in my first year of Law and have so many weekly readings to get through. I also find that I do that same thing but what I learnt from last semester especially for us gals who have to ready frequently a lot of pages. Take notes how you normally do it’s ok to copy a little and then closer to the exams make more condensed notes and focus information on what seems to be things frequently talked about in your lectures and tutorials throughout the semester. I can confirm this method works as I used it last semester and was able to pass my exams with high distinctions and distinctions – Jess

    • Hey Liz!
      All colleges have some form of learning support that you can access if you are taking a class from them. My college, for example, has a learning center that I can get tutors from (online now obviously). You may also have a counselor assigned to you from the college, and if not, then you have one from your high school. You can ask them for people to talk to about this. I recommend you find out about your learning center, tutors, and learning advisors, and set up a Zoom meeting in order to discuss effective note-taking. Also, you should REALLY talk to your college professor and voice your concerns!! I am 17 and in college classes, and I’ve found that if you raise your concerns with the professor, they may even be surprised that anyone was concerned in the first place. If your professor says that you can’t change anything, then it was worth asking, at least. Don’t suffer now and regret it later, reach out to and communicate with the people who can help you. That’s wayyyy too much reading in one day, IMO.

  • Hey Lousia!

    This was a great post! I’m about to start the IB course in September, and I’ve been warned that there’s going to be A LOT of note-taking that I have to get used to. like to get into the habit of taking notes from a textbook effectively, as I haven’t really practised on this skill before now. This blog post was exactly what I needed. I love how you broke the points down and explained it well – this article is super helpful and I’m enjoying implementing these tips in my note-taking strategies.

  • Hello!
    I want to thank you so much. Using this note-taking strategy, I reduced the amount of time taking notes from 30 minutes per page to 10 minutes per page in my AP textbook. I’ve gotten really behind, but hopefully, I’ll be able to keep up now!

  • Great detail for eliminating the “long-hand”! I’m guilty of copying (word-for-word) from the textbook and finding it way too much information and rereading my notes multiple times. The best tools by far on diminishing the amount of info in note taking from the textbook. I really appreciate the tips and the importance of “retrieval practice”. This information goes a long way!

    Thank you.

  • I really loved it and like reading it it really helps me a lot and Also a good thing I did takes notes like Cornell notes before so I’m getting stronger

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