Side Note: After getting e-mails and requests to talk more about the learning method I developed and used in college I’ve decided to write more about it, and turn it into a small project.  I want to make a guide that is as good as possible, so I’m doing a little giveaway to help you (the readers) help me.  The first person to read this article, apply the knowledge (speed read their textbooks) and e-mail me, sharing how it worked will get a PDF with 5 articles from the guide I’m working on.  Some of these articles will never be released for free on my website, so jump on this while you have the chance!

Some of my favorite textbooks to speed read

There’s no way I’m reading these the same way I read novels

How (and Why) I Speed Read Textbooks 

Getting ahead is one of the biggest favors you can do yourself in college.  Whenever I started to fall behind in my classes, it always seemed like an insurmountable task to catch back up.  When I’ve procrastinated an assignment (or studying for a test) until the last minute, catching up always becomes a stressful mix of all-nighters, sloppy work, and negative feelings about the class, my work, and often my image of myself as a student.  When I’m catching up I feel like I expend more effort convincing myself to work than I do actually working, and the sense of accomplishment I should feel from finishing my work is replaced by guilt and a feeling that “I shouldn’t have gotten this far behind in the first place”.

In just the same way that getting behind can start a downward spiral, getting ahead can positively reinforce me to stay ahead, and stay on top.  If you look at individual classes as races (to complete all the work and studying) there become two main strategies for winning (succeeding): getting a head start and keeping a reasonable pace ahead of everyone else (low stress, more strategy), or running sporadicly, at a pace you feel like, when you want to, then sprinting until either you reach complete exhaustion or the semester ends (whichever comes first) once you realize that you’re not winning the race (high stress, low strategy).  In this article I will explore the first steps of the low stress strategy, that is how to get ahead at the start, and an easy way to stay ahead.

The most effective way I’ve found to do this is to read ahead.  More specifically I am recommending completing the reading for the entire year before the first day of class.  This might sound very difficult and time consuming, but I will share my strategy for why it isn’t, how it will take less than five hours (per class), and probably save you 20-50 hours (per class).

In my experience, almost every professor lectured either directly out of the assigned textbook, directly out of another textbook, or from a set of lecture notes or powerpoint slides (or some combination of all of the above).  Whether or not you think lectures are an important part of the learning process, the lectures and reading materials lay out the professor’s expectations for what the students should learn throughout the course.  If you had access to all the materials ahead of time, and were familiar with them before the first day of class, there is no doubt you would have a head start on all your peers.  You could start working on the assignments and projects immediately (even final projects, and homework assignments due at the end of the year), and you would have a frame of reference on where the course was going instead of being blindly led by your professor along with the rest of the class.  The ability to start assignments early will allow you to front-load the course work, have more time to get your assignments revised before turning them in, and cue you in to what topics in future lectures will actually affect your grade (or are worth paying closer attention to).  Covering the material early allows you to start studying for exams and finals on the first day of class, gives you the opportunity to ask better questions at office hours and in lectures (since you’ll actually know what you’re talking about), and will show your professor that you are serious about learning the material (which often leads subjective grading decisions to be made in your favor).  The perspective you gain from this will help you identify the sections you need to spend more time understanding early, and (possibly more importantly) the topics you already know, or have previously mastered, so that you can weight these much less heavily (or even skip) while studying.

Aside from being useful for understanding lectures, it also allows you to jump right into the work that matters, that will actually improve your performance and understanding of the material, the practice.  As I explain in my test taking article, practicing taking tests and solving the types of problems that appear on tests is the most straightforward method for improving test performance, and other study strategies are low intensity distractions.  Spending too much time reading and re-reading the course materials will either take away from the time you should be learning something, or will add pointless study time to your life, which will take away from the activities and freedom that are essential to your success as a student living a balanced life.  My philosophy is to do the work that matters, and skip (or speed through) everything else.  Speed reading the text gives you a good idea of the scope of the course, as well as where you can look in the future when you need a specific question answered, but it will not trick you into thinking you actually learned how to solve problems or any important skills from reading without applying your knowledge, which people often fall victim to when they spend hours making sure they “understand” each concept before moving on to the next one (e.g. reading slow).  Below I have outlined the exact plan I used to speed read my textbooks for every course in college before the first day of class.  Following the same philosophy I outline for learning and reading, don’t think you’ve learned anything by simply reading this article; give it a shot, then form your judgements about speed reading later.  If it does fail miserably (which it never did for me) you will still be ahead of your classmates and your professor will already take a slight bias towards you.

Figuring Out What To Read:

This is easy, and will save you a lot of time.  Meet with or e-mail your professor before the semester starts asking, what text book the course and lecture follow.  Tell your professor you want to get a head start on the course over break, and be sure to ask if the lectures are based on any other books or notes that aren’t mentioned in the syllabus, as well as exactly what chapters the students are expected to master over the course of the semester.  I understand that this information is often in the syllabus, but a few of these conversations led me to books that professors use to find exam problems, that none of the other students knew about, which quickly became an extremely unfair advantage for me.

How to Speed Read:

Once you’ve identified the reading materials, collect them in one place, and give yourself exactly five hours to read all of it.  I prefer reading actual textbooks or pieces of paper to electronic documents, but work with whatever you have.  It’s important to have everything in one place while you read so you can estimate how you’re progressing through the material.  My speed reading method is to put my finger on two or three locations (depending on the page width) on each line, that roughly evenly divide it (see image).  This way you read faster, and your finger dictates your reading speed, not the cadence of your self talk.  While reading I hold my tongue on the top of my mouth to make sure I’m not saying the words in my head as I read.  Saying everything you read in your head will seriously slow you down, and whether or not you normally do this while you read, you shouldn’t do it while speed reading textbooks, since you’re not here to enjoy the story, you’re rapidly covering the material so you can dive deeper and shortcut your way to the actual learning.  The reading itself consists of looking at the text above your finger (not every word, you’ll catch a few words each time you change where you’re looking, and will get better at this the more you practice speed reading).  Don’t take notes, don’t highlight anything, at least not now.

An Example of Where I would Place my Finger for a Specific Line in a Textbook

An example of where I would place my finger for a specific line in a textbook

Choosing a reading speed is simple.  Titrate your speed by keeping track of your progress.  Since you are going to finish in exactly 5 hours, if you’re less than 20% done after the first hour speed up, and if not, slow down.  Changing your speed is easy, since all you have to do is change the rate at which your finger is moving through the book.

There are a few major differences between this method and reading a textbook like a novel.  First this is much more intense.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information, and that’s why I suggest doing the reading in 1 hour chunks, taking a 10 minute break to do some sort of light exercise (like walking, jumping rope, etc…) every 50 minutes.  The combination of the intensity, and the rapid progress motivates me to finish the 5 hour reading sessions in a single day, as I don’t want to exhaust my brain on days when I want to practice the material, and it feels like a great accomplishment to finish a textbook, especially when you’ve done so in one sitting.  Second, it feels very different.  If you are new to reading this fast you will feel like you’re missing a ton of material, and maybe even like you’re missing everything.  All you can hope to gain from reading is memorized knowledge, which quickly fades if not reinforced, so this feeling will actually give you a better perspective on what you’re accomplishing by reading, and while you may not be able to pull exact phrases from memory, you’ll be surprised in lecture, as the concepts are revisited, how much you actually picked up in your initial run though the text.  Don’t give up when you start feeling like this, just push through and finish without taking any extra time, use first hand experience and objective results to draw conclusions on how this method works for you instead of giving up the second it feels different than what you’re used to.

The same technique applied to more math heavy sections. The orange lines are my finger placements. Notice I read math like any other text.

The same technique applied to more math heavy sections. The orange lines are my finger placements. Notice I treat math like any other text.

Don’t Read the Textbook Again:

Look things up in the book when you want to answer a specific question, or revisit a specific example, but do not read the book or sections of the book cover to cover again.  If you ignore this last step, the whole exercise will not save you any time.  When you feel like reading in the future do some meaningful studying instead.

That’s it, one simple five hour investment will save you the 2-3 hours you would normally spend reading each week, and give you a small head start, that will get you in the right frame of mind to excel for the rest of the year, without feeling any time pressure or guilt about being behind.  Once you’ve finished do something to reward yourself for being so far ahead and to overcome the brain fog and intellectual overwhelm that this speed reading session has probably created.  Have some fun, and think about all the fun you’ll be having in the future while your peers are stuck at home reading a boring textbook, then remind yourself that right now (before the semester starts) you’re the top student in the class.