Tips on Reading College Textbooks using the SQ4R Method

May 28, 2001

The Bottom Line The SQ4R method for reading college textbooks has helped many students improve retention.

For the past 10 years, I have taught a class on college success at a major U.S. university. Whenever our class starts to discuss methods for reading college textbooks, I can count on hearing tons of moans, groans, and sighs. I also see some very interesting faces. When I inquire about these responses, students will typically say, "I have heard this before," "I already know how to read and resent having to learn how to read in college," or "All of these methods just take too much time." These are the polite responses I have heard. However, there have been NUMEROUS times when students would contact me years later and tell me that they found this material to be exceedingly beneficial.


There are several reasons why improving students could benefit from improving their ability to read college textbooks.

1. In college, as opposed to most high schools, reading assignments are lengthier and more difficult. It is not uncommon for students to read several textbooks and dozens of journal articles PER class in college.

2. By investing a little more time using the SQ4R method (or other similar methods) for reading college textbooks will result in a greater comprehension and retention of the material. This will increase the chance that students remember what they have learned after the course has been completed. The reason for attending college is to gain knowledge.

3. When one improves their reading skills, one will spend less time cramming for tests.

4. Lastly, (and least important) grades are likely to improve.


1. Many students think that just because their reading skills have enabled them to succeed in high school, that they will automatically be able to succeed just as well in college. However, high school textbooks are typically easier to read that college textbooks, high school students do not have as much to read as college students, and high school students don't have as many demands on their time so they can take longer to read chapters than college students can.

2. Many students equate needing to improve one's reading skills to be successful in college with illiteracy. These are the students who tell me, "I don't need this because I know how to read. I learned to read in grade school." However, there is a big difference between being literate and getting the maximal benefit from reading college textbooks. They are NOT the same thing.

3. Other students believe that methods such as SQ4R will not work for them. But, how will they know unless they try it.

4. Many students THINK that they already know how to read a college textbook. They will say, "You just open it and start reading." This may work well for novels but it does not work as well for technical college textbooks.


I would like to describe each of the steps in this process. Let's assume that one has to read a chapter in their Introductory Psychology Text entitled "Abnormal Behavior." Here is how I would recommend reading this chapter.


When one surveys the chapter, they are trying to get an idea of what this chapter is about. The first would be to read the title of the chapter. (One may think that it is silly for me to even list this as a step. However, many of my students don't look at the title of the chapter.) If there is an outline of the chapter, review it. Then flip through the chapter and make note of the main divisions of the chapter. Most college textbook chapters follow an outline. For example, the main headings in our chapter on abnormal behavior may be the names of various mental illnesses. If something catches one's attention, take a moment to look at it. When one gets to the end of the chapter, one should read the chapter summary. Also, one could determine how many pages are in this chapter. This will give one an idea of how long to allow oneself to read this chapter. At this stage, it is a good idea to break down the chapter into various sections that can be read at one time. This is especially important for lengthy chapters.

QUESTION. As one is surveying the chapter, start asking oneself questions one hopes to get answered in this chapter. For example, when reading this psychology chapter, one may question, "What is the difference between 'schizophrenia' and 'schizoid personality disorder'." One may also ask, "Are some disorders more common in adults than in children?" "Why is this?"

READ At this step, one will actually start reading the chapter. However, it is best if one also incorporate reciting and relating (see below). If one owns their own textbooks (or other reading materials), it is very helpful to highlight important information. Highlighting important information will save an incredible amount of time when preparing for tests since the key points will be immediately apparent.

Be sure to pay particular attention to any pictures, graphs, tables, or other diagrams and their captions. Contrary to what many students think, these things are not placed in chapters to take up space. These portions of the chapter are very important.

RECITE After reading a paragraph or two, stop and ask oneself what one has read. There have been MANY, MANY times when I have read an entire page (or more) just to find out that I had no idea what I have read. Reciting after every paragraph or two, will prevent this from happening. If one is unable to adequately recite the material, one need to go back and read it again. An EXCELLENT way to be sure one has an understanding of this material is to ask themselves, "How could the instructor ask this information on the text?" Then the student should answer their own question.

When one encounters information that they are unable to understand on their own, they should write down their question. Then they should get that information clarified by either discussing it with other students or with the instructor.

RELATE Also, after one has read a relatively short amount of material, one should relate this material to other information one have already learned. One can relate the material to other information in the chapter, from previous chapters, from class lecture, and to incidents in your own life. For example, as one is reading about depression, one may compare the symptoms of depression to those of anxiety. Also, one may relate the information about depression in this chapter to information about brain neurochemistry learned in another chapter. One may also realize that the symptoms of depression listed in this book are the same as the symptoms of depression stated on a TV commercial.

REVIEW One should review the material numerous times throughout the semester. MINIMALLY, students should review the chapter five times.

1. As soon as they are done reading the material.
2. Before the next lecture.
3. Before reading the following chapter.
4. When reviewing for the test.
5. When reviewing for the final exam.

An excellent way to review the chapter is flip through the pages and read the material that has been highlighted. Additionally, concentrating on making sure that one thoroughly understand the information in the summary is very important.


1. It is better to read a smaller amount of material and retain it than to read a large amount and retain nothing. Of course, I am not giving anyone permission to only read a small fraction of their textbook. What I am meaning is that one should be realistic about how much they can read well at one setting.

2. Plan to spend 2 - 3 hours studying outside of class for every 1 hour in class. So, if one is taking a 3 hour European History class, one should plan to spend AT LEAST 6 - 9 hours a week preparing for that class alone.

3. Try to read in the same location as much as possible. Also, don't do anything but study in that location , if possible. You want to condition (or train) yourself to automatically start learning whenever you are in that area.

4. Reading while watching TV does not work well. Either read or watch TV but don't try to do both. Reading college textbooks requires one's full attention.

5. Form a study group with at least one other good student in each of your classes. When I was a student, I would call members of my study group when I didn't understand something I was reading. Also, members of my study groups would quiz each other before tests. These sessions were IMMENSELY beneficial to all of us.

6. To gain the most from classroom activities, one should read the associated textbook materials PRIOR to class. This will improve both class participation and one's understanding of what is transpiring in class. The absolute worst thing one can do (besides never reading the text at all) is to wait until right before the test to read the assigned chapters.

7. Once one has tried the SQ4R method, one can modify to fit their individual needs. The important thing is to find out what works BEST for oneself. However, one cannot do this unless one has tried methods such as SQ4R; one can't assume that the way they have always been reading textbooks is the best method for them.

Read all comments (2)

About the Author ID:
Location: Illinois
Reviews written: 62
Trusted by: 31 members