How to Take Notes from a Textbook that You'll Actually Understand

When I first started college, I never voluntarily read a textbook. Seriously. My grades, of course, reflected this decision. It was mainly because I honestly had no idea how to read a textbook in a way where I would understand and remember what I was reading. Textbooks are overwhelming. Nothing about textbooks is fun. So when you have professors assign readings, sometimes from multiple textbooks, it's easy to become discouraged and want to blow it off. That's how it was for me, until I learned the best method for understanding your textbook and save you time later when you are studying for tests. In this comprehensive guide, you'll learn how to take notes in a way that will help you absorb the information and reduce your stress later on!

A Comprehensive Textbook Notetaking Guide

1. Outline your textbooks

At the beginning of every chapter, there is an outline. It's an overview of what the contents of the chapter are, the titles of the sections, and sometimes, any key terms from the chapter. This is a goldmine. When you take the time to do this as you have readings assigned to you, the week before a test doesn't seem as stressful anymore. Your outline should look something like this:

I. Headings (i.e. the main topic of the section. These are usually in bold at the beginning of the chapter.

A. Subheadings (the topics within the section. These create a further breakdown of the headings.)

1. Further breakdowns of the subject (This could be a theory that needs to be further broken down, definitions... Basically anything that has a number next to it in the text.)

i. Anything else you may need this for.

Here's a peek at what this looks like inside my book:

This is only one part of outlining. The next part is transitioning it into notes.

2. Color Coding

As you go through reading your textbook, highlight key phrases and words that stand out to you. However, you don't want to highlight each piece of information with the same color. This is why color coding is so important. If you highlight information in all the same color, it is easy for your brain to get confused and overwhelmed. When you color code your notes, your brain visually understands what the information is at a glance. Here is how I break down my notes:

  • Pink = definitions or defining information (some of my textbooks don't put information in the margins or a glossary)
  • Blue = Statistics (percentages, case studies, etc)
  • Green = Quotes (This is mainly for my textbooks. Social work books tend to quote a lot of people for a number of different reasons and these end up on exams.)
  • Yellow = Any other miscellaneous information (this could be key points you know will be on an exam or are mentioned on your powerpoints. Just make sure the information doesn't fall under any other category)

The most important thing about color coding is consistency. If you are inconsistent with your colors, you will eventually get confused. So pick your colors according to your needs for the class and stick to it! Also remember, you don't need to highlight every single word. If you do it correctly, you won't be highlighting everything.

Tools used to color code:

Le Pen 18 Color Pen Set (4300S-18pk)

Sharpie Clear View Highlighter, Chisel Tip, 4-Pack, Assorted Colors

3. Transition your highlighted information to your notebook

This is the part where you actually start taking notes. You've just taken your textbook and highlighted the information you know to be important. You've also outlined your chapter. So starting with the first heading, begin creating your outline in your notebook. Here is what my notes look like combined with the outline and the color coding:

This one page of notes contains three pages of information from my textbook. Yes. Really. After reading my chapter in my textbook, I was able to shorten a 30 page chapter into 7 pages of notes that are concise and beautifully color coded. This process does take some time, but if done correctly when the reading is first assigned, it will save you time in the long run. I usually read my chapter and take notes before the class where the topic is covered. By doing this, not only will you not have to frantically take notes during class, but you'll be less stressed come exam time.

Have any of you ever been stressed with the amount of reading you've had? How have you reduced that stress?

This post was originally posted on by Courtney Kincaid, founder of The Collegiates' Guide.