How to read a textbook effectively

One of the most common study tips among top students is to take full advantage of lessons by reading the topic before attending class.
But when you look at the huge Physiology book lying on the shelf and you’re not really sure where to begin, one of three things might happen:

  1. You’ll convince yourself to face that challenge after dinner (which probably won’t happen)
  2. You decide to make a quick youtube search and watch a video on the subject instead of getting first-hand information
  3. You start reading a 20-page chapter about a subject that afterward, you’re not able to explain in your own words or even tell the difference between what’s important and what isn’t.

Sounds familiar?
This is because you are approaching your textbook the wrong way, I got frustrated many times by trying to understand a chapter of a textbook while just reading it from start to finish like I was reading a novel, this is the #1 mistake.

Here’s how to actually get the most of your textbook, by reading it more effectively; following these steps, you’ll start diving into the subject with a great view of it and going down to the details, therefore getting a better understanding of it.

1. Do a quick skim through the pages without focusing on anything particular.

This way, you’ll see how is the chapter structured, are there graphics? Images? Tables? Or is it just paragraphs of information? How long are they? Are there subtitles or just blocks of text?

If there’s something that caught your attention don’t fall into the temptation of stopping and reading that page because you’re probably not ready to understand it yet.

By getting an idea of how your book has organized this particular chapter you’ll get ready for reading, and you’ll know what to expect.

2. Read the questions at the end of the chapter

Most of the textbooks have a final section of questions to test if you’ve learned and reached the objectives of that lesson. Often teachers take some of these questions and customize them to apply them on tests or during classes.
By reading these questions you’ll have an idea of what is important to know about the subject and your brain will give you a sign when you’re reading through the chapter and find an answer to some of these questions.
You’ll have something to “look for” and the lecture will be more active and enjoyable for you, like a treasure hunt.

3. Read the titles and subtitles

Like the ingredients of a meal, the big subject is made from little chunks of information, when you go through the components of the big subject you’ll find it easier to understand the structure when you start to actually read about it.
For instance, let’s say you’re reading a chapter about the endocrine system, the first section will explain what are hormones and glands, the second how hormones make things happen in our bodies, and then you’ll have several sections describing each gland of the body.
You now have a global vision of the subject, by just knowing what the book is going to describe you in each section.

4. Read the first paragraph of each section

The first paragraph has a summary of what you’re about to read, a brief description or introduction so you get ready to fully dive into the subject. Often, you’ll find the definition of the title of this section right on the first paragraph, depending on the field you’re studying.

5. Now you’re ready to read it from start to end

You should now have a global idea of the subject and the components of the main topic covered in this chapter, it will be easier to understand when you read through it, and the chances of you having to re-read to understand where is something coming from are much lower.
Try to actively read, if there’s a term you don’t understand write it down and continue reading, this is the moment to formulate questions for the lecture you’ll be attending. If you remember some of the questions you read on step 2 and found an answer you’re doing it great!

6. Understand and USE the tables and graphics of the textbook.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve skipped these gold mines. Tables on textbooks are a great way to have a more visual and condensed shot of information. Once you’ve fully studied the subject, went to classes, taken your notes, made your flashcards, whatever study method you use you can implement reviewing relevant tables from textbooks to remember the important stuff.
Once I learned how to use tables and graphics I am a big fan of these, and they’re part of my reviewing repertoire.

Now you’re ready to wrestle with that thousand pages textbook, go ahead.
Happy learning!

How to study for an exam when you have no time

That frightening moment when you get a reminder of the date of an exam and it’s only 6 days from now… you start panicking because you’ve only studied the first 3 lessons! I really hope you don’t have to go through this, but if you do…


What to do? Well, I’ve been there, I’m not going to lie, here’s a piece of advice to get the best possible results with the little time you have, use your time wisely and promise yourself to use a study schedule next time to have your mind at ease the last week before the exam.

Stay in your comfort zone 

What a weird advice, nowadays the trend for everything is stepping out of your comfort zone, right? But this is an emergency! Fight or flight! And we’re fighting here, the best way to do this is doing what has worked before for you. Are you a night owl? Don’t try to become a morning person for the sake of an effective study routine, not at the last minute, it won’t work.


If you need to stay up late to get through the most information possible and you work best at night then do it.


Be smart when choosing your learning resources

If you’re struggling to understand a single paragraph of a textbook, and you go over and over it, more than 4 times, skip it, if you find it hard to get the whole concept of a page or a chapter consider finding an easier, more digested source of information; is there a reliable Youtube channel you know about where you can find this topic shortly and with a simpler explanation? Go and look for it.


Don’t waste time trying to understand something complicated when someone else has already made a simple explanation, you’ll get frustrated by digging into the textbook’s words, I’m not saying you should do this for every exam, just right now you have to use your time and energy the smartest way to get the most of your study.


Do you have friends years ahead that could help you out? Reach out to them, ask them what to focus on, how did they study, borrow their notes, this is a shortcut you shouldn’t always rely on, making your own notes and getting the information from recommended textbooks will give you better results, but, just for this one time, we need to use everything on hand to make it through the exam.


Don’t break the flow

Once you’re in the mood and started to study, you’re losing track of time, don’t stop unless it’s necessary or your body is asking you to do so. Turn off distractions… put that phone away… in another room… of another house… locked in a safe cage… and lose the freaking key! Sorry, I panicked a little here, but you get the point.


Try to avoid distractions as much as possible, don’t stop unless you’re tired, or your brain needs a break. If you are used to studying in short breaks then stick to 4 but instead of watching a YouTube video on your 5-minute break do some physical activity, get that blood pumping to stay alert, and be able to continue studying. 


Scrolling through social media, or a quick tv break is a no-no in this situation, this will take your mind away from the study mood, too many distractions will make it harder to get in the flow again after your short break.


Reward yourself

Cramming isn’t fun guys… You’re doing a really hard work, you managed a 6 hours study session and still, your nerves are wrecking! Stressing over the exam and feeling guilty you didn’t study before, it’s okay, I’ve been there.


Only after you’ve accomplished a decent amount of study. Now you can take your phone… finally! If that is a reward for you; if you were actually craving going for a run to free your thoughts a little bit that’s up to you. Reward yourself with whatever makes you happy.


Try to have a nice rest the night before

Time’s up, you made the best you could with the time you had. Now we don’t want a fatigued brain, that won’t get you anywhere even if you understood everything you managed to study.


Take a warm shower, get a nice meal (not too heavy), and go to bed on time, you’re probably very tired for overworking anyways, so hopefully, after you relax you’ll be able to sleep all night. Don’t forget to turn on the alarm!


During the exam

The moment of freaking out is over, now you have to be as confident as possible with the information you managed to digest. Skip through the questions and answer the ones you already know, if you’ve got any essay questions included write on the side the crucial words that come to your mind and expand on those later.


Focus on the questions of the topics you managed to study. Don’t waste time trying to guess over a question you might have read somewhere. Instead, try to make sure you got right the ones you understand. 


After the exam

We both know that cramming wasn’t the best learning experience you had. So, take responsibility and go through the topics again, with the exam questions still fresh in your head, write down as many as you can remember, and reinforce the topics that need reinforcement. 


Study the topics you didn’t get the chance to even read, and being honest if you failed that exam this reinforcement could be helpful if you need to repeat it, or to get a higher grade on the finals and step up from this little slip.


Break the vicious cycle

Cramming is exhausting, stressful, and painful, nobody wants to deal with this situation on every exam of the career. Besides, is like playing Russian roulette with your grades, you might pass 1 or 2 exams, but you won’t always be lucky, someday the lessons you didn’t get to study could be most of the exam’s questions and you’d fail.


Commit yourself to study on time for the next exam, you deserve better than average grades. If you’re a serial procrastinator try starting even before the semester begins. What do I mean by this? If there are no exams to study? I mean start building the habit of studying every day, even if it’s only 30 minutes, pick a topic of a subject you love and read about it, make notes, every day.


If you’re not familiar with creating long term habits you could find the book Atomic Habits really helpful, here I go over 15 great advice from it to help you build any habit you’d like to conquer.

How to revise more effectively + FREE Spaced Repetition Study Schedule

This is it, you decided to study ahead of time for that big exam, no more cramming in the last 3 days to get an average or below average grade. Besides, a week later it’s like you did a wipe on your disc and all the information is gone.

Not this time, you will knock it out of the park, you’ll remember everything because you’ll study with enough time to revise and polish your weak points. So, how do you start? How much is enough time to study for a test? How often do you have to revise your notes? How can you be able to memorize everything?

Around 140 years ago Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist was dealing with these same issues, well, maybe not the same, but he was wondering, how much we forget in a lapse of time; he experimented on himself, and the results opened a door to many more investigations around memory and human learning.

What is the forgetting curve

He attempted to discover the rate of forgetting meaningless material and also significant (meaningful) material during the first thirty days after it had been learned.  Determining the amount of information that had been forgotten during the following intervals: 19 minutes, 65 minutes, 8 hours, 1 day, 2 days, 6 days, 30 days.

This can be graphically represented in a curve as the percentage of information lost over time when there’s no reviewing process involved.

Have you ever wondered how long does it take to forget something we just learned? Ebbinghaus had the same question and answered it.


What describes the typical forgetting curve

We start forgetting newly learned information around 20 minutes after reading it, and more than half of the material is forgotten during the first hour. After that, the curve tends to lower at a slower rate.

What?! There´s no way! How can I stop this?

It is pretty doable, by getting ahead and revising the materials before we completely forget them.

So, if you are the kind of student that stocks on huge piles of information and goes class after class, taking the first one for granted, let me show you a more effective way to study without having to spend much more time.


Why is the forgetting curve important

If we take advantage of how our brains work, we can use this forgetting curve in our favor.

Turns out, that forgetting is part of learning, if we don’t forget, and feel the need to get that piece of information back, our brains don’t take it as relevant.

If we get our efforts back on the subject we learned yesterday, the path to get it in front of our heads will easier.

Think of it as a path that hasn’t been transited enough and it’s on the other edge of the grass, the more often you go through it, the easier it will be to get there. That’s kind of how our memory works.


How to overcome forgetting

It is not about forgetting, it is about remembering before we forget the whole thing, and by doing so build stronger learning.

There is a method called spaced repetition, taking as a base the forgetting curve to work for us. Keeping in mind the amount of time in which the data in our brains gets lost, we can actively revise our knowledge, if we need to use it, we will remember it.

The spacing means that on crescent time intervals we will have to study again, 1 day after, 3 days after, 6 days after, and then 25 days after the first time we studied the material.


How to remember newly learned information

Make sure you understand the piece of info laying in front of you, a mechanical memorizing of terms won’t do the work. Try and recognize where it comes from and how do the parts of it stick together.

Take concise notes of your material, and make questions to work with in future revision sessions. This is a habit that some students don’t have, prepare for the exam since the first study session.

Make possible exam questions, this gets your brain to work by reconstructing the information into questions.


When to review and how to do it

The day after your first study session on that subject, before you jump to the next one, do a quick review of what you’ve learned yesterday, take a quick read to your notes.

After reading your notes, answer the questions made by yourself on that first study session and get a couple more questions to work with, this is active learning.

Think about a problem you could solve with this knowledge you have, recite step by step how would you solve the problem with what you’ve learned.

For example, while learning about the knee ligaments, our professor mentioned the clinical application to it and how the soccer players were prone to have lesions in this specific area.

So, in my head, I would have to examine a patient and with the anatomy knowledge I have, decide whether a certain movement on the knee is natural (based on the disposition of the ligaments) or if it’s a sign of lesion.

This is how spaced repetition works, you should practice this active review 1 day, 3 days, 6 days, and 25 days after your initial study session.


How to study with flashcards and implement spaced repetition

The first time I ever heard of the Ebbinghaus curve and spaced repetition was on a Youtube video by my favorite study guru Thomas Frank, he explains in a very simple way how to get the best out of flashcards with a system that works.

Putting on different boxes the cards you have successfully remembered, and the ones you failed to remember. Therefore focusing your efforts on the cards you didn’t get right. You’ll need around 5 boxes to have different intervals of time to revise each group of flashcards.

Best apps for spaced repetition system

If you like to study with flashcards, there are plenty of apps really helpful to create your flashcards and have them with you to review anywhere and anytime.

– Anki: the best feature of this app, is that it comes integrated with your forgetting curve system, it shows you the material you need to review based on the last time you revised each flashcard successfully, you just have to create your flashcards, review them and let the app do its magic.

– Memrise: it has a more attractive design than Anki and you can customize better your flashcards, plus there is a wide variety of Memrise cards that other users have created and are available for you to use.

– Quizlet: the process of creating flashcards with this app is the easiest, you got definitions included for a wide variety of subjects, and by simply typing a term you can choose content that is already on the app for the back of the card.


How to apply spaced repetition in college

It all comes down to time management, make a list of all the topics you need to study, then calculate how much time will it take you to study each one, if you have 20 topics to cover for an exam and it will take you 3 hours each one you’ll need 60 hours to study everything for the first time.

If you add 2 hours of revision (half an hour for every day you need to review) that sums up to 100 hours of total study for this exam,

3 hours of a first study session  



X 20 topics = 100 hours

30 minutes the day after
30 minutes 3 days after
30 minutes 6 days after
30 minutes 25 days after
Total study time per topic = 5 hours


You can use your study time however works best for you, take notes of the date you studied each topic the first time, and from there calculate when will you have to review it next time.

I’ll make it easier for you, you can download my free study schedule based on spaced repetition, this is by far the most effective way to remember everything to study.


Just set the date you should study each topic counting the days from the first lecture, and write it down on the grid, check off when you’ve successfully reviewed on time and keep track of your study sessions.

If you like this kind of resources let me know and I’ll come up with more ideas. Enjoy your learning!