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?”
“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.”
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.
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
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. 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 TweetYour 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! Teens 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.
In the example above, notice the main headings circled in blue and the sub-headings in purple. This textbook has the vocabulary terms in blue.
- Make an outline, mindmap, or Cornell notes, just using the headings and subheadings. Leave extra space so you can write in your notes later.
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.
- 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! Pro tip – If you don’t understand a sentence, read it out loud a few times. Your brain processes the words differently when you hear them than when you say them in your mind. If you still don’t understand the sentence (or paragraph), make a note to ask your teacher or another student.
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.
- Start highlighting using a color code key. Check out my post on note-taking for more information.
- Add small drawings or doodles to your notes that help explain the information.
- Annotate your notes (write in the margins) with review questions, connections to other classes, or questions you have for the teacher.
- 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!