Unit 3: College Level Critical Thinking, Reading, and Study Strategies

Phyllis Nissila

Reading Textbooks: Front and Back Matter

Pile of books
“Books” by Clker-Free-Vector-Images is in the Public Domain, CC0

Before diving into every line of text in a textbook reading assignment, it is helpful–and saves time–to find out, first, what resources the entire book has to offer you. Then, as those chapter readings are assigned, it helps to first skim read them for the big picture meaning.

The first exercise in this chapter will help you find all the resources in your textbook–and some textbooks have a lot more help in the front matter and back matter of the text than you may realize. I always think of one student who, when given this exercise to use on any textbook he had with him, picked his math book. He was at that time re-taking that math class because he had failed it the term before. As he did the exercise, he realized the back matter of the book included an answer key for half of the problems for every exercise. “Had I known this last term,” he said, “I would have passed!” See if you, too, find something useful in your textbook that perhaps you didn’t know was there, either.

Skim Reading Textbook Chapters

Before doing a detailed reading of a textbook chapter, get the big picture by following these steps:

  • Similar to reading the Table of Contents for the entire book, read the Introduction or Chapter Overview, whichever the textbook features, for the main ideas and how they are divided.
  • Read the headings and sub-headings.
  • Note the graphics (charts, tables, illustrations, etc.).
  • Read the first one or two sentences in the paragraphs (the paragraph topic is sometimes covered in more than one sentence).
  • Read the last sentence in each paragraph which might be a paragraph summary.
  • Read the summary of the entire chapter, if given.
  • Read any sentence with boldface or italicized words or word groups in it (usually key ideas or technical terms).
  • Stop when needed if you come across a complicated idea or topic and take a little more time to skim it until you understand it.
  • Skim the study questions, too. They will help you focus on key points.

Using the recommendations on how to skim through textbook chapters, do so with a textbook chapter of your choice. When you are finished, close the book and write about the following: write down as many of the main ideas of this chapter as you can remember by skim reading it. Try not to look back. When finished, check your work to make sure you have transcribed the information correctly.

Reading Graphics

image with various types of charts such as pie chart, bar chart, etc.
“Statistic” by JuralMin is in the Public Domain, CC0

Listed below are various types of data found on most graphics, whether a pie chart, bar graph, line chart, or other type.

The key to comprehending graphics and using them to get more meaning from a textbook chapter or an article, or to answer study questions, is to pay close attention to the typical elements of the graphic. Not every graphic includes all of the elements listed.


  1. Title
  2. Captions
  3. Legend
  4. Axis information (vertical information, or “Y” data, and horizontal information, or “X” data)
  5. Publication date (important for the most current information)
  6. Publisher (important for credibility)
  7. Labels
  8. Color (used to differentiate and compare data)
  9. Size (also used to represent comparisons)
  10. Spatial positions (helps for comparing and contrasting)
  11. Patterns represented by the content, itself, and
  12. Trends that appear more evident when viewing the visual representation of the data.


Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, previously shared:

Nissila, Phyllis. How to Learn Like a Pro! Open Oregon Educational Resources, 2016. Located at: https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/collegereading/chapter/lesson-3-2-getting-the-most-meaning-out-of-your-textbooks/  License: CC-BY Attribution.

Adaptions: Changed formatting.

“Books” image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images is in the Public Domain, CC0

“Statistic” image by JuralMin is in the Public Domain, CC0


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Blueprint for Success in College and Career Copyright © 2019 by Phyllis Nissila is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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