How to Study a History Textbook

In my work as a college teacher, students often ask for advice about how to study their textbooks. Since I keep offering the same advice, I thought I should write it here in case it’ll be useful to other students. I’ve asked some other college and high school teachers what advice they would offer, too.

Let’s be honest: Using history textbooks is hard.

By “textbook,” in this case, I don’t mean just any kind of history book. Sometimes instructors do ask you to read other kinds, and we may refer to all of them informally as textbooks. But in many of your courses, a textbook may be a special kind of oversized, expensive book, designed exclusively to be used for school. You’re probably never going to read a history textbook for fun. Often, you’ll have to take quizzes or exams based on it.

Now, a lot of history teachers today don’t assign this kind of textbook at all. But there’s a good chance yours does. And these books can be deceptively difficult to use. They’re supposed to be relatively easy to read. But if you’re trying to sit down and read one straight through, you’re likely to find it boring, overwhelming, or just impossible to follow.

Students tell me all the time that they’ve carefully read a textbook chapter, even studied it more than once, only to discover that they can hardly remember anything they’ve read. Or that they studied part of a textbook and thought they were ready for an exam, only to discover that the questions on the test were completely different from what they had expected.

These are common problems. So let me offer some advice from the perspective of history teachers.

First, remember what a textbook is for: Showing the relationship between a big picture and lots of facts.

You should understand that your history textbook probably exists to do two things at once.

First, your textbook probably exists to help you organize your thinking about a big topic. If it’s a traditional oversized textbook, it’s supposed to help you get an overview of an entire society, an entire continent, or even the entire world over hundreds or thousands of years. The chapters in your textbook are designed to break that big story into manageable chunks. (It’s common for a college history textbook to have 14 to 16 chapters, since a typical academic semester has about that many weeks.) Each chapter usually has a main theme or question, plus a few sub-themes and sub-questions. Fundamentally, your history textbook is a tool for organizing your overall mental image of the past.

At the same time, your textbook is also designed to be a repository of lots of specific information. It’s a place to look up details that you may have missed in class, or that you have already forgotten, or that there wasn’t time to cover in person. And it probably includes maps, data tables, and other visual aids that will add to your understanding.

A lot of students struggle to use history textbooks because they forget to keep both purposes in mind. But those purposes go together. Your teacher didn’t assign your textbook as a thing to just sit and read. Instead, it’s a tool to use for figuring out how all of your course’s big ideas and specific details fit together. It’s a map that shows where all sorts of things reside in a big landscape. This determines how you should approach it.

That means …

Don’t try to memorize everything.

It’s impossible. And it’s not the point. If you take out a marker and try to highlight or underline every bit of information in your book, guess what? Every page will just be a damp block of color … and you’ll still have no idea how to study it.

Don’t get me wrong: The details in your history book do matter! But they matter because of the relationships they have with each other and with larger ideas. Those relationships are what you need to understand in order to identify the most important details to memorize.

“Highlititis is real, and deadly,” joked James Harris. Instead of trying to highlight or underline every fact in your textbook, he told me, it’s better to write your own notes to capture the main point of each section in your book. Then you can underline a few key words that help you explain that point. (Harris recommended highlighting just 15 words per 100-word paragraph.)

“If you’re going to highlight,” added Katy, another history instructor, “do it with purpose and color-code. One color for important ideas/trends, another color for terms to study, a different color for important examples, and so on. It makes for more reflection as you go.”

Melissa Johnson told me that it’s especially important not to assume your job is to memorize an enormous number of names and dates. Although some teachers do ask for that, especially in high school, a lot don’t. At the beginning of every course, Johnson said, her college students say they’re worried about memorizing names and dates. “‘Well,'” she tells them, “‘I have excellent news for you!!'”

Not only do many history teachers think it’s unnecessary for students to memorize lots of specific dates, but many don’t consider themselves very good at memorizing these details, either. “That’s what Wikipedia is for,” one of my own professors once joked. (In other words, when he needed to know an exact date, he would look it up.)

Hang on, though! It looks like I’m dodging your question. You still may have to take quizzes and exams after studying your book. What should you study? If using a textbook isn’t about memorizing every detail, how do you know what’s important to remember from it?

Well, for one thing …

Figure out the argument.

Jacqueline Antonovich introduced me to a really helpful infographic made by another history professor, Blair Stein, adapting original text by Mar Hicks. It shows a four-step process for retaining information from your history reading assignments. With Stein’s permission, I’m sharing this graphic here as something you may want to download and share. (Click on the image to open a full-sized version.)

For the sake of accessibility, the four steps identified by Hicks and Stein are these:

  1. Read for Argument: Write it down! Highlighting the thesis statement in the reading is less helpful than articulating it in your own words. Besides, there isn’t always a single thesis statement.
  2. Find the Evidence: Figure out what details are important by seeing if they align (or strongly conflict) with the argument. Identify what types of sources are used to support the argument.
  3. Formulate a Response: Be prepared to respond to the reading and its argument using evidence from the text. You don’t have to agree with the argument, but you should be able to explain why you do or don’t.
  4. Come to a Conclusion: Identify your most resonant takeaway from the reading. This is a great way to see what you’ve accomplished and helps with retention. It also helps connect your text with other readings!

It’s good to remember that a textbook is like any other kind of writing: It makes an argument that is supposed to change the reader’s thinking. The details matter because they’re meant to support the author’s case.

(Something else to remember: An argument can take the form of a story, and vice versa. For example, your textbook chapter may be an argument about cause and effect. It may tell you that certain factors led to a major change in a society; that a certain event led to many unexpected changes in the following years; that different groups of people had different kinds of experiences because of a certain set of social attitudes; etc. Your textbook usually tells stories that make a point.)

Adam Shapiro shared with me an essay he wrote about this issue a few months ago: “Why Wasn’t This in My Textbook?” In that essay, Shapiro points out that textbooks are not “morally neutral compilations of facts” about a single correct account of the past. Instead, they reflect the worldviews of the people who write, edit, print, and purchase them.

Does this mean your textbook is biased? Well, sure, absolutely. But remember, so is everything else! Any act of communication, whether true or false, exists because it is designed to shape your thinking somehow. Textbooks are neither better nor worse than other books in this respect.

Anyway, here’s the bottom line for making a good grade: The factual details that your teacher considers especially important to remember—the details most likely to appear on a quiz or test—are often going to be the ones that are the most important in the book’s argument.

And I have some more good news: Unlike most other kinds of history books, history textbooks often have features that are specifically designed to help you identify, find, and study the key pieces of information. So …

Use all the special features of your textbook.

As Lucy Barnhouse pointed out to me, your textbook probably has some extra “tools” and “clues” that a regular book wouldn’t. You can use them instead of treating your book as “something to be read word-for-word” in the usual way.

As soon as you acquire your textbook, spend time getting to know the following tools, if your book has them. All of these features are designed either to help you locate critical information or to teach yourself to read the book more effectively.

  • Bold-print or italicized key terms (sometimes listed together at the end of each chapter)
  • The index and glossary at the back of the book
  • Preview and review questions before and after each chapter
  • Topic headings and subheadings within each chapter
  • Marginal comments and text boxes
  • Maps and timelines
  • Primary sources (original texts and images from the past), often with questions to stimulate your thinking

I’m going to let you in on a secret: Many history teachers look at these tools when they’re writing your quizzes and exams. That’s because they know these tools can help you focus on what to study.

For example, a term that your textbook places in bold print is a term that your instructor is likely to expect you to have studied. Your teacher will expect you to have noticed the bold print—and to have figured out that it’s a signal from the textbook’s authors. (If your teacher has also focused on this term in class, that’s an especially good sign that it’s important.)

Similarly, if your textbook chapter has a review question that asks you to compare two different things—for example, “What were some key differences between ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt?”—your instructor may be likely to write a test question about one of those key differences. That’s because the comparison is probably important to the argument your textbook chapter is making—and your textbook has specifically signaled that you should study it.

Likewise, if your textbook chapter has a subheading about a specific topic, your instructor may want you to understand and remember the key point the book makes about that topic. For example, if your textbook’s chapter on the American Revolution has a subheading called “The Revolution for Native Americans,” there’s probably a key claim in that section about what the American Revolution meant for Native American communities. That’s a key claim your teacher may expect you to remember.

“One thing my students tended to miss when I used textbooks,” Lindsay Marshall told me, “was how helpful the headings are. Use them to put together the chapter’s argument—they say what the text following them will tell you, so read for that. It’s an easy way to keep from getting lost in detail.”

In other words: If you make a list of the headings and subheadings in your chapter, you’ll usually have a basic outline of all the main ideas the textbook’s authors wanted to communicate. (Often, the authors put together an almost identical outline of things they wanted to say before they started writing.)

Unfortunately, it’s true that some history teachers may try to quiz you on truly obscure trivia, catching you out on things you can hardly be expected to remember. But many of us design a quiz or exam primarily as a way to give you credit for studying your textbook, grasping its key points, and figuring out how the most important factual details illuminate those points. The special features in your textbook are designed to help you—and us—identify what those key points are.

Above all, don’t just read your textbook. Read it actively; investigate it.

Every suggestion I have provided is a way of becoming a more active reader.

Active reading is just as important for understanding a textbook as active listening is for understanding what a teacher says out loud. Instead of receiving information passively—reading your textbook the way a vacuum cleaner travels across a floor—you should try to think with the textbook authors.

Christopher Jones told me about one simple but great way to do this. He advises his students to read the introduction and conclusion of a chapter first, noting the focus and key themes. Then students should go back and read the body of the chapter, “paying attention to how the names and dates and events speak to them” about those themes.

Rachel Gunter offered an even simpler method: “Look at the discussion or focus questions first,” if your textbook has them. “Then read to find the answers to those big questions.”

In a blogpost he wrote a few years ago, Caleb McDaniel offered a three-step process for reading any book (not just a textbook) in a college history course. First, you should “pre-read” the text. This means skimming it, looking especially at the titles, subtitles, and other headings, and remembering that the most important pieces of information often come near the beginning or end of a text. Second, you should go back and read the text slowly, looking out for examples and other evidence. After that, you should “post-read” the text, reflecting on how you would formulate the key things to remember and ways you could apply those ideas to other topics.

Hanne Blank recommended studying your textbook as part of the “Feynman Technique,” a famous four-step learning process described by the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. This is a method for teaching yourself a topic by figuring out how you would teach it to someone else.

Like most of the other suggestions I received from history teachers, all of these may work best if you read with a pencil or pen, taking notes as you go. Active reading usually involves some kind of writing.

At the end of the day, one of the reasons a good textbook exists is to help you train yourself, week after week, to read more effectively. It’s a tool that teaches you how to use it. Approaching your textbook as a puzzle to solve will help you develop the skills to solve other reading puzzles in the future.

Ultimately, the active reading strategies that work will be whatever active reading strategies work for you. It may take some experimentation to find the methods that best fit your personality and your teacher’s way of thinking. That’s a normal and necessary part of the learning process.

At the end of your history course, one of the topics you may have learned the most about is your own way of learning.