4 Strategies I Use to Self-Study Technical Textbooks

Reading a textbook for self-study is very different to school or university. Back when I was in school, I read the textbook for the sole purpose of doing well on a test and it didn’t really matter if I couldn’t apply the concepts I was learning about. However, I have come to realise that this is the most critical part of self-study.

Over the years, I have developed a few helpful and effective strategies for reading technical textbooks and I want to share them with you. Also, if you didn’t know – I have created a 6 month data science curriculum and I will be applying these strategies as I read through a few of the technical textbooks in my curriculum.

Annotate & mark it up

If you are able to annotate or mark up your text book then you definitely should. Annotating a text book almost forces you to read more actively. You approach the text with the purpose of identifying what’s important and what’s unclear and it prevents you from just mindlessly reading words that mean nothing.

I prefer to just use a pencil when annotating a book, but that’s my personal preference. If you like using highlighters then go ahead! I annotate like this:

  • Underline or place an asterix next to important concepts & paragraphs – most of the time this is subjective and is just what I think is important as I read
  • Place a question mark next to things I don’t fully understand with a little note on what question I had in my mind so I know to revisit it or spend more time on it later
  • If something is very complex I will usually scribble some notes or try to break down the concept on a small piece of paper that I insert into the book at the position I am reading. This helps to identify what I DO understand and when I revisit the section to make further notes, I can focus my attention on the parts I DON’T understand. The worst thing you can do is say “I don’t understand section 5 at all” because that doesn’t help you. What, specifically, about section 5 didn’t you understand? Often, all you’re missing is a small piece of the puzzle that makes everything click into place.
  • Lastly, if I come across anything that I know I want to come back to for a project or an implementation, I’ll add a little sticky flag on the edge of the page so that it sticks out to me when the book is closed.

Don’t take notes on everything

This is probably the hardest thing to remember. Throughout my time at school and university I was always a compulsive note-taker. I took extremely comprehensive notes on absolutely everything to the point that my notes became more of a hindrance than a help. I learnt the hard way how to take better notes.

When self-studying a textbook, this is even more important to remember because you are probably not going to take a test on the material. Instead, you want to approach the text with the goal of becoming a practitioner (more on implementation later).

On the topic of digital vs handwritten notes, I prefer taking digital notes. I keep all my notes in an app called Notion and it allows me to capture almost anything such as links, embeds, formulas, pictures, code snippets, etc.

These are some of the benefits I have experienced when taking digital notes:

  • I can type faster than I can write
  • I can jump around topics – my notes do not need to be sequential or perfect the first time I write them
  • I can fill in or add to my notes, and easily delete irrelevant or badly written notes
  • It does not come with the side effect of hand cramps after an hour of writing 😬

As I write my notes, I try to keep these points in mind:

  • Take notes on the higher level material – don’t get stuck taking notes on every detail you read. That’s what the book is there for, don’t rewrite it.
  • Ask questions in your notes (and find answers for them in other texts, online articles, video’s, etc. and link to them in your notes)
  • Link concepts together in your notes from other parts of the book or from other resources (similar to the question/answer method above). I believe that true understanding and learning comes when you’re able to link together the things you are learning
  • For complex concepts that I struggle to understand, I would get out a blank sheet of paper (I go analog for this – pen and paper are the best for complex and challenging material) and pretend I’m explaining the topic to someone, starting with what I do know and then filling in the gaps in my knowledge with the material in the textbook (see the Feynman Technique).

Implement fast

I am a big believer in project-based learning, especially for technical topics. There is an excellent quote by Stephen R. Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

To learn and not to do is really not to learn; to know and not to do is really not to know

Stephen R. Covey

When going through a textbook I am constantly asking myself how I can apply what I am learning. Before I have even completed a chapter, I will start looking for data, python libraries, and example code that I can use in a project that applies the algorithm, model, system or high-level concept I am learning.

The faster I can get to the project-building phase, the better. Once I start implementing, I usually end up with a list of questions that did not even occur to me while I was reading the textbook and I quickly realise which of the concepts I didn’t actually understand and I’ll go in search of answers. Sometimes the textbook doesn’t explain something in a way that I understand and reading it somewhere else, explained in a different way, can suddenly make things click.

Iterate & expand

Think of your study as a iterative process. You may not cover every detail or completely understand everything you read the first time you read it. However, you should understand just enough to get to apply the concepts in practical projects, as mentioned in the point above. Once you start working with the material in a practical way you’ll be able to identify the gaps in your knowledge and then you can refer back to the book to expand on those areas and fill in some of the gaps.

During each iteration you should also return to your notes. Add new ideas and remove points that don’t make sense or aren’t relevant to keep notes on.

Remember not to get too attached to your textbook. There are hundreds of resources out there for learning something and expanding your knowledge requires different perspectives or different ways of teaching something. Explore.

I hope you found these strategies helpful. Leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on self-study and reading technical textbooks, I’d love to hear from you!