Have you ever looked at a syllabus and realized that one book is going to make up almost all of your class readings? Or found what you think is the perfect resource for a research project, but it’s 300 pages long and full of multiple chapters of analysis?

Regardless of whether reading to learn fills you with glee or dread, a big part of university-level learning takes place through reading books (or large portions thereof)! Never fear – there are some strategies that can be used to read more effectively and learn as much as you can.

As Paul Edwards wrote: “when you’re reading for information, you should ALWAYS jump ahead, skip around, and use every available strategy to discover, then to understand, and finally to remember what the writer has to say.” (2017, p. 1). Maybe you know some of the strategies you prefer, and maybe it all feels relatively new. Either way, in this article you’ll find some tips and tricks for how to read a book to learn.   

(Gif shows SpongeBob wearing glasses and skimming through a field guide)
[Narrator Voice] Ah yes… learning.

Decide How Much Time You’ll Spend

There are only so many hours in the day, and no one is more aware of the demands on your time than you are. One of the most important first steps is to know how much time you’ve got, and then how you’ll divide it up. This is where starting early on your reading helps you to save time later on… and so does acknowledging your limits and needs. Before you start, keep in mind how long it usually takes you to read a certain amount, and plan from there.

In the resource consulted to make this article, the author recommends pacing yourself in one hour chunks of reading if you’ve got several hours of reading to do… with around 15 minutes extra given per hour to help you focus at the start, account for distractions throughout , and wind down when you’re done (Edwards, 2017, p. 6). In between those one-hour chunks, remember to take breaks or do something else before you get back to it! That will give your brain some “breathing room” – and help you to process what it is you’ve read already. So will spacing out your reading sessions over a couple of days.

Have a Purpose and a Strategy

Many times, chances are you’re reading a book or book chapter for one of two reasons: your professor assigned it, or you think it could help you in an assignment or project.

However, you’ll get the most out of the experience if you set your own purpose for reading, and as much as possible align it or match it to the professor’s purpose. Ask yourself before you begin…

  • Am I reading to contribute to a class discussion?
  • To understand a concept better?
  • To create an argument?
  • To summarize the points for a class presentation?
  • To provide a critical reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s arguments?
  • To see whether it will help in a research project?
  • Am I reading for another reason entirely?

Try to think about why it is that you’ve chosen a particular piece, and then keep that purpose in mind throughout.

Read it Three Times: to Discover, to Understand, and to Recall

The first time you read, you want to discover the text – skim and scan for what seems like the most important main ideas, arguments, and pieces of evidence. Make brief note of where those sections are – use sticky notes or tabs, or other methods to keep track! You can also write any initial questions you have.

The second time, read much more in-depth; this time, you want to understand. Now, aim “to get a careful, critical, thoughtful grasp of the key points, and to evaluate the author’s evidence” (Edwards, 2017, p. 5). Focus on those elements you noted first time around, and mark new areas that help you meet the purpose you set. This should take the most amount of time.

Finally, read to recalland this time, take notes!

It may seem counter-intuitive to wait until after you’ve read the whole chapter, book, or assigned reading before making notes, but this method will help you to pay closest attention to the key ideas, thoughts, arguments, and evidence of the piece – and only to summarize the Big Ideas relevant to the reason you’ve been reading.

You want the material to make sense to you, which is why using your own words is essential. If you have handy shorthand, colour-coding methods, or other ways that you organize your reading or research, now’s the time to use them!  Ideally, the reading to understand will take the most time – allowing you to focus this last bit of effort on recalling which parts of the text were most essential to your purpose for reading, and why they matter.

Image shows an open notebook with notes, a book, and some writing tools.
You can add diagrams and creativity to your note-taking – try colour coding, using sticky notes, or even a different kind of paper (like blank or graph paper)! Image by Noémi Macavei-Katócz, noemiphotography, on Unsplash.

Read the Whole Thing

As in our article for how to read journal articles, strategic reading is going to help you out. Book chapters often move from more general information through specific and back into general, and paying attention to headers, graphics, and sidebar text will help you to pinpoint early on what sections of the text are most likely to be useful. However, note that reading the whole thing is the best way to make sure you haven’t missed something important… and to ensure that you can represent the author’s points accurately.

Other Pointers:

  • As always, it’s important to evaluate your source to understand who the author was and what context they are writing for. Check out this other article from Clever Researcher on Evaluating Sources for Credibility to learn more!
  • Working on a project? Remember to consider using Citation Managers as you go – your future self will thank you! Read more about that in our article on Mendeley and Zotero.


The tips and pointers contained here have been remixed from a work by Paul N. Edwards from the University of Michigan’s School of Information, which is under a Creative Commons 4.0 License. It’s definitely recommended that you check out his full article – it’s easy to read and contains many more strategies for how to read books to learn! You can find it at the “quasi-permanent” link here – pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtoread.pdf. He updated the article annually, which you can find here, and 5.0 is the most current version as of 2019.

The APA Citation for this article is:

Edwards, P. N. (2017). How to Read a Book, V.5.0. Retrieved from Paul N. Edwards website: http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/essays.html

Another resource you may want to check out is:

Creative Commons License

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