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How I Write and Learn

In this blog series, “Ask a Coach!” our Writing and Learning Center coaches answer our UNC-CH undergrads’ burning questions! Check back every month to see what our coaches have to say about everything from taking breaks to utilizing office hours! 

I am struggling to understand my math textbook? What is the best way to utilize textbooks in STEM courses?

A math textbook in front is the name with some details Jake: When I struggle while reading a math textbook, I like to start with formulating what I don’t understand into a clear and concise question that I can easily research. From there, I look for answers to my question from other sources, such as searching on google or asking others. I personally don’t like relying solely on a textbook to study because it typically offers a limited perspective on a subject which may not necessarily synergize with my prior knowledge or learning style. 




Chem math with name of peer tutor in frontMegan: I have been in your shoes before. STEM textbooks can often feel very dense and reading through them can be very time consuming. Personally, before each class, I like to read through the relevant sections and create a simple outline of the chapters I read (does not need to be very detailed). I write down chapter headings, subheadings, bolded words, and summary points for each section and create questions for myself based on the reading. I have found answering these questions while I study to be much more beneficial to my understanding than reading over a paraphrased version of the textbook in my notes. If my professor provides me with guided reading questions, I make sure to actively read those parts of the texts, but for the most part, I have found skimming the textbook before class and creating an outline to be sufficient. Finally, I have found textbooks to be a much more beneficial resource to utilize if the professor of my class wrote the textbook themselves (this is common for STEM lab classes, where tests are often derived straight from the textbook).


STEM books stacked with peer tutor name in frontAddison: I may not be the best person to answer this question, as I don’t utilize my STEM textbooks all that often, but I think my perspective may be helpful. When it comes to the most effective way to study, everyone has their preferences. Some see the textbook as the best resource to use while others see it as tedious, boring, and overly complex. In addition, even if the student likes using the textbook in one STEM course, that doesn’t always mean they will think the same of another, as every class and professor is different. Here’s what I’m trying to say: it may not be your fault if you struggle to understand your math textbook, as everyone is different. As long as you’re trying your best, that’s all that matters. If you’re required to read the textbook then, of course, read it to the best of your ability, but, if not, then I encourage you to find a different study resource, such as an online YouTube video or online practice exercises, and invest as much time into those as you would the textbook. Experiment and find out what works best for you, and, once you’ve done so, make it a part of your normal routine. And – one last thing – don’t forget about the abundance of practice problems and keys within the textbook! While not all the readings may not be useful to you, I can almost guarantee that those questions and answers will, especially if your professor recommends it as a resource. 


This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach, a peer tutor, or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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