How to Take Notes from a Textbook

Textbook readings

Hey guys! I’ve received so many questions about reading textbooks and taking notes on that, so I am going to share with you how I do it.

I like to write on the margins. Not highlight. I don’t use a special color coding technique to separate my comments from key terms from titles from definitions.

My system is very simple and makes sense to me. All I use are:

  • A pencil
  • An eraser
  • Small (not tiny) sticky notes

To start, I think it’s important to read actively. This means to think through the material, note things you don’t understand, complete little practice problems at the end of each section and connect new concepts with each other and the old ones.

The margins of my textbook are pretty thick – so thick I can fit a small 2 x 1.5 inch sticky note.

  • On the sticky note, I write definitions and very important concepts that go with the definition. This means that I have anywhere from 2 to 6 sticky notes per page.
  • I underline important explanations and quotes in pencil. Whatever I think is super important, I underline. I choose not to highlight in order to avoid stupid highlight-every-word-what-if-I-need-to-see-it-later kind of thing.
  • I write small comments in pencil on the margins, near the sticky notes. Usually these are longer explanations of the sticky notes, a little map of the concepts (how what I’ve just read connects to each other), and, most importantly, my own connects that I make while reading. This seems to help a lot, because if I look at this text in a few weeks, I’ll be able to remember my train of thought at the moment of reading.


That’s it.

It sounds like a lot, but come test time, I will only use the margins and skim the text part of the book for any underlined parts.

I’ll let you guys know how that goes for me this quarter: I’m taking two Psych classes (4 chapters a week, 30 pages each…..) and a Math class.

Remember Better: Active Recall

To remember new information better, we have to look at studying at a more biopsychological level.

When new information enters our brain, it is first processed in the working memory. This type of memory is not very big- with it we only remember things for about 30 seconds. Example: when you do a math problem, you think about the numbers you’re working with. However, when the problem is solved and you move on to the next one, the numbers are forgotten immediately.

In some cases, the information (now a memory) moves to the short-term memory (STM), where it is kept for a few minutes longer. However, if this memory is not recalled enough times, it will be forgotten. That’s why when we procrastinate and leave the memorizing and studying until the last minute, we don’t remember that information after the exam.

Now for the final part, to transfer the new memory from STM to Long term memory (LTM), we have to use something called active recall. Basically, it’s like quizzing yourself: the more times you remember/recall something, the better you’ll remember it in the future. Like finding your dorm room- the first few times you get lost, but eventually you remember it and have no trouble finding it.

Are you ready for the next school year?

With only a few weeks left before Fall quarter starts, it may be a good idea to start looking ahead.

  • If you already have your schedule, go down the list and look up the classes you’ll be taking. It’s good to know a little background info before you show up on the 1st day.
  • Professor ratings (my favorite!): look up your professors‘ names on It has reviews from students who have already taken classes with that instructor.
  • Know what to expect: look through the textbook material, maybe some introduction videos, etc.
  • Buy office supplies. This might as well be on the top of this list.

Add your suggestions in the comments!

Stress Relief

Some notes on stress relief: how to deal with test anxiety and long-term stress.

More on relaxation and sleep: meditation , Best time to sleep at night, Power naps, more on sleep cycles.

(Learned this today in BioPsych lecture (Dr. Lauren Graham)).

About Memorization

Learned this the other day in BioPsych:

The reason why flashcards are a great way to memorize concepts and terms is because when you study with them, you make your brain work hard to retrieve information from your memory.The more you do this, the better it stays in your long-term memory.

—> To remember things better, you must make yourself retrieve that information several times. 

This is also the reason why simply reading over your notes a thousand times won’t help you study. Because you’re not working hard to retrieve any information, the info is not consolidated in your long-term memory and stays in your working memory (only up to 5 seconds max).

Multiple Choice Exams

Quick Tips for Answering Multiple Choice Questions

1. Read question and underline what it’s asking you.
2. Cover the answer choices (a, b, c, d) with your hand and try to answer the question yourself, without any help. Seeing the answer choices will just confuse and distract you.
3. Use the Process of Elimination: 
– Eliminate what is obviously a wrong answer
– Now only focus on what’s left. Now you won’t pay attention to the wrong answer choice and it won’t distract you anymore.

Note* Strongly-worded answer choices are rarely the right answer! See example on the picture :)

My econ professor told us a few of these- you still have to study, but these techniques makes it easier for you to find the right answer among all the wrong ones that distract you.

** If you have any more tips you’d like to share with us, Submit them to me and I will post them and credit you, of course, or comment below!