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Study Strategies for Online Learning: Understanding the College Textbook

Updated on October 26, 2009

College level textbooks may seem intimidating at first glance. The volume of information itself can be daunting, but be assured most teachers will only use selected portions of the book in a typical course. As a distance learner, or online student, your textbooks will be a very important part of your curriculum. There are three main sections in a standard textbook: front matter, the main body or text and end matter. Understanding the purpose of these components and how to use them will help you in your studies.

Front Matter

Obviously, the front matter is located at the beginning of the text, and is intended to be a navigational guide to the contents.

The title page will include the title of the book and the names of the authors. Generally, most people skip over this. However, it is a useful bit of information should you ever need to cite the text as a reference.

The preface is a statement or essay usually written by the author, which offers valuable insight into the author’s point of view, the scope of the book, background information and purpose for writing the book. Reading the preface should be a preparatory step to learning the contents of the textbook.

The introduction provides additional insight into the author’s purpose of the textbook, and provides an overview of the course. Reading the introduction will give you an idea of the important concepts, theories and information that you should give special attention to as you are studying the material.

The table of contents is the road map to your textbook; looking it through it will give you an idea of how the material will be presented. It is formatted to mirror the contents of the main body; as such, it will be organized into a list of components for each section including units, chapter titles, and sometimes chapter subtitles, as well as the contents of the end matter.

Main Body

The main body of the text contains the information you will be required to learn for successful completion of a course. There are several components within the main body of the text that you need to be aware of. In general, they can be classified as primary text and elaborative material, both of which are important in the learning process.

The primary text, or the narrative, is the main presentation of the material. There are several features within the primary text that demand special attention. Words and phrases in italics or bold type are especially important as they indicate key concepts and terms you will need to know. Other features to note are bulleted or numbered lists and quotations.

Elaborative material may be presented as definitions, sidebars, photographs, illustrations, graphs, charts and self check questions; they are helpful in illustrating central or key concepts, and alerting you to what the author considers most important. They are worthy of your attention. Sidebars are additional text contained within a box, and may be stories or brief case studies that will provide a greater understanding of the material. Self check questions will usually appear on the outer margins of the page, and are also useful in determining the main points of the text. Visual representations of materials can be valuable as study aids because they present some of the same information you have read in a format that you can visualize. It is often helpful to recreate graphs and charts in your notes to further facilitate learning and retention.

Additional features that are included to enhance your learning are introductions, chapter reviews and chapter tests. Many educators believe reading through each of these prior to reading the chapter will alert the student to the key concepts that will be presented in the text.

End Matter

The end matter of textbooks is supplemental information that can be extremely valuable when preparing for exams and as references for papers and assignments. Common features of the final pages in a college textbook are the glossary, an index to authors and subjects, the bibliography and one or more appendices.

Glossaries can be used as quick references to find definitions of words and concepts. They are usually an alphabetic listing of the words and phrases presented in boldface type in the main body of the text, and so can be considered an important tool for studying.

The index is an alphabetic listing of the names, places and specific subjects contained within the textbook along with the page numbers associated with each. For studying and reviewing, the index can be useful in identifying material that you have yet to master and may need to study further.

The bibliography lists references used and or cited by the author in the writing of the textbook. They are an excellent source for finding resources for further study and for writing papers.

Appendices may be documents, maps or other material that relate to the subject matter of the text, and again, are excellent resources for further study.

Understanding the anatomy of a textbook is central to the learning process. For the student enrolled in online courses, the college text becomes a focal point of the curriculum. Becoming familiar with the importance of each component, and learning how to use them will give you an advantage in your studies. The textbook should be used not only to initially learn the material, but also as a study guide in conjunction with your notes to help you prepare for exams and successfully complete a course.  


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