Study Skills – Reading A Math Textbook (Activity)

February 23, 2010 at 6:58 am 4 comments

So many of today’s students view their textbook as a device that contains their homework exercises rather than a tool that can help them learn and understand mathematics. Part of the blame falls on us as instructors – we need to encourage our students to read and use their textbook, explain how to do it, and let them know why it is important.

Here’s an activity I use to help students learn how to read a math textbook for information. It starts as a homework assignment, followed by a short in-class group activity. Total class time devoted is approximately 15-20 minutes, but the rewards are definitely worth it.

  • For homework have students read through several objectives or an entire section in the book. The earlier in the semester the better, while the material is on the “easier” side. Also, the earlier you do this the longer your students can benefit.
  • Students should come to class with a summary of the main ideas and a description of the types of examples covered.
  • At the beginning of class, put students in groups of 2-4 students.
    The students should compare what they have written with the rest of their group, looking for items or ideas they are missing.
  • Give the students a brief assignment, allowing them to use what they have written.
    This will allow the students to determine whether they got enough out of the reading.

This activity shows students that they can gain important information from reading their textbook. Many developmental mathematics students assume that the book must be over their head, and this activity can show them that it is within their reach.

In next week’s Study Skills blog I will share my thoughts on how to read/use a math textbook.


I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. Each Tuesday I post an article related to math study skills on my blog. If there’s a particular study skill you’d like me to address, or if you have a question or a comment, please let me know. You can reach me through the contact page on my website –


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Whit Ford  |  February 23, 2010 at 11:46 am

    I support your ideas here fully. One additional idea for the class before this assignment could be to:

    Using the next section of the book (one they have not been assigned, and therefore have presumably not read yet), put the text up on an overhead screen, and cover all of the text up with two pieces of paper. One piece covers all by the first line of text, and the second piece can be pulled aside to gradually reveal a couple of words at a time.

    Uncover enough of the first sentence to form a phrase… the first sentence fragment. Read it aloud, and ask the class to describe what it says in their own words. Ask if there are any ambiguities to it – could it be referring to more than one idea, etc.

    Once everyone seems to understand the first fragment, uncover the next sentence fragment, and discuss whether this modifies what was just discussed in any way, or expands on it in some way (or however else you care to describe what it does…).

    Continue this process until the entire first paragraph has been read (probably 10-15 minutes).

    The above forces one and all to gain some collective first-hand experience with “close reading” of a math text, and enforces a slow pace of reading to give them some experience with both the pace and thinking process you are asking them to use on their own for homework.

    I also advocate this because it gives me a chance to make the following points to students:

    1) Pay attention to how you feel while reading. Are you feeling any uncertainty or confusion? If so, this is important. Do something about it immediately, and DO NOT continue reading. Return to before where the uncertainty began, and re-read, sentence fragment by fragment, seeking to fully understand each word and phrase.

    2) Learning by reading a text is very different from reading a favorite genre for pleasure for most people. It is a slower process.

    3) Most people’s minds typically do not acquire new mathematical concepts as quickly as they can read, so pausing, re-reading, and thinking about what you have just read before you proceed are all critical steps.

    4) While math terms and notation are (hopefully) relatively unambiguous once you understand them, you may often interpret the words authors use to introduce new concepts differently than the author intended. The author’s words or approach may not reflect the your learning or thinking style, but you can still learn from it. Think carefully about all possible meanings of each phrase, and make sure each phrase seems logically consistent with its predecessors before proceeding.

  • 2. luckytoilet  |  February 23, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Students tend to dislike their math textbooks when they are forced to use them. As long as they are made to do homework and exercises from them, I don’t think there’s any way around that.

    • 3. Whit Ford  |  February 25, 2010 at 7:04 am

      I guess it is sort of like the adage: never take a class where the text was written by the teacher…

      However, I believe this approach to using a text to learn from can work if done at the very beginning of a course, with a text that is readable (not just all graphics with boxes containing formulas to be memorized), and a syllabus that allows the text to be seen as a resource instead of a task-master.

      What if a text were published that separated the problems from the explanations (in different books), allowing the teacher to choose their favorite explanations (text) along with their preferred problems (perhaps by a different author)?

  • […] Reading A Math Textbook (Activity) This is a classroom activity to help students learn how to read a math textbook for content. […]


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