To Read or Not To Read? That is the Question

Hello again! I hope you had a merry Christmas. ­čÖé I am still on winter break, but I have been working on my study schedule for my upcoming class, HSF (Human Structure Function). As I was deciding what to read/study on which days, I had to work through the question of whether I would take the time to read the textbooks (or if I would simply study the lecture slides we were given). Whether or not it is beneficial (time-wise) to read for a course differs between people and, I believe, differs between courses. It also depends on how much study time you have/make time for.

UC San Diego School of Medicine uploaded this post on how to study actively. Many people compare the rate of information you receive at medical school to drinking from a fire hose — you are presented with a┬álot of content in a very┬áshort amount of time. This being the case, it is important to spend your time actively studying, not simply passively studying (such as reading long passages of text without effort to memorize, or simply reading through your notes).

Thus, for some people, reading chapters in a textbook would not be highly beneficial. They would not retain much information from doing so, and would be taking time away from studying the content that the professor handed out (often, this is powerpoint slides). Personally, I have found that it is much easier to do extremely well in a class if I read the chapters assigned from the textbook. This is most likely because according to the Vark Questionnaire, I have a strong preference for the read/write learning style. I learn best from reading material, and writing out summaries/notes.

However, not everyone has a read/write preference in their learning style. Some people are auditory learners, some people are visual learners, and others are kinesthetic learners. Just because you are primarily one learning style does not mean you do not learn in other manners. I still learn content via auditory, visual, and kinesthetic manners; the way I tend to learn the best is simply read/write.

Time is another deciding factor on whether or not it is beneficial to read the textbook. In classes where I have had plenty of time (generally summer courses), I have read most of the chapters associated with the lectures. This helped me tremendously and made the class fairly easy. However, in other classes, I either started out the course reading the book and found it beneficial (but I was limited on time), or started out reading and did not find the content in the textbook overly helpful. In both cases it was more beneficial for me to spend my study time working through and learning the material that the professor gave us, instead of spending a few hours reading a long textbook chapter. Most professors test on the content that they give you and present on in class, not on the content in the textbook. Thus, in deciding whether or not to read, you must evaluate 1) whether or not you have time to read, and 2) whether or not reading is beneficial for you.

For me, reading is beneficial, but I consider it more of a luxury than a necessity. If I have time to read the textbook it benefits me greatly and makes the course easier, but it is not necessary for me to read the textbook in order to succeed in the course. In my current study plan for HSF, I will be reading the textbooks during part of the weekend.┬áThe weekdays are reserved for studying the content presented by the professors — unless it is highly important, I will not┬ábe reading a textbook chapter during the week.

One last thing to keep in mind is that referencing a textbook is much different than reading an entire chapter. It is often helpful to read short sections in a textbook regarding an aspect of the lecture that is difficult to understand or which you feel was not explained well in class. You are presented with another viewpoint/way of explaining the material, and this also gives you an additional time of exposure to the material. Memory is not simply repetition, it also encompasses understanding; however, repetition and reviewing the material are important for remembering information, and reading the textbook is an additional time that you go through the content.

In conclusion, reading the textbook may be helpful for some people more than others. Even if it is helpful, you may not have time to read all of the chapters assigned and learn the material presented in class. Whether or not you read the textbook is based on a variety of factors: 1) if you find reading to  be a beneficial mode of learning the material, 2) if you have time to both read and learn from the lectures, and 3) how much the teacher emphasizes the textbook when they teach the material (it is often helpful to talk to upper years who have gone through the class in determining what different teachers emphasize). It is ultimately a personal decision, and while reading the textbook is generally not necessary, some people may find it very helpful to do so (whereas for others it would not be a good use of their time).

Do you read the assigned textbooks? Why/why not? Do you find it beneficial to do so, even if you do not generally have the time available to read the textbook?


7 thoughts on “To Read or Not To Read? That is the Question

  1. As a medical student, I generally would only refer to the textbook for clarifying content from lectures. I found a way to make my studying more active, especially during my 3rd year, was to create flashcards using ANKI (a free flashcard website which used spaced repetition, so that cards are presented over time and in order of what areas are your weaknesses). I found learning actively became even more important given sitting down to read a textbook after being in the hospital for 12+ hours sounds impossible.


    • That definitely makes sense, thanks for your input. I have heard of ANKI but have never used it; I’ve started using Firecracker (which is also a spaced repetition card system based on how well you know the material, but the cards are pre-made). I think the concept of spaced repetition is very useful, as it is important to go over things occasionally to keep them solidified in your mind, but if you went over everything every single day there would not be enough hours in the day — you must learn the new material as well as remembering the old material. I’m certain that as my coursework gets even busier my study strategy/method will continue evolving!


      • Never enough time to spend reviewing flashcards, especially Firecracker. I did a trial with Firecracker and found that I could not keep up with all the content and also found that not having created the material myself made it not as helpful. While preparing for Step 1, I got the UWorld Step 1 Qbank several months before my dedicated study time and created ANKI flashcards based on material I did not know well. Good luck with your studies!


    • Thank you! Good luck to you as well in your classes, and happy New Year! I am looking forward to reading through your blog more, from the little I’ve seen so far it looks like you are very perseverant. ­čÖé


  2. I just finished my first semester of uni studying biochemistry and it has been difficult and I did not do so well this semester. Do you think that I can still get into med school if I change all of that and do really well?
    Also in terms of the textbook, I rarely read the content in it as my profs never emphasized them but for classes like physics and chemistry I def would do the assigned questions and if there was a question I had troubles with I would go back and do the reading for that section.


    • Hi Lizzie! I just took medical biochemistry last semester, and it was definitely the most difficult course that I have taken thus far. As you said it is your first semester, I am certain that you still have a chance of getting into medical school! Grades are very important, as most applicants have fairly high GPA and MCAT scores. Here are a couple tables from the AAMC comparing applicant GPA/MCAT vs. matriculant GPA/MCAT (this is for U.S. medical schools). So I would suggest you evaluate what you did this past semester — what worked, what didn’t work, and how can you refine it in the upcoming semester to improve your grades? It is also often very helpful to talk to a learning specialist if your school has one; they can offer an objective viewpoint on how you’ve been studying, and offer suggestions on how to improve that study strategy.
      In addition to this, getting into medical school is much more than just grades. Grades are very important, so you must have fairly high grades, but medical schools look at many things — “academic strengths, exposure to health care and medical research environments, personal experiences
      and interests, potential contributions to the campus and community, and personal attributes, such as maturity and drive to help others.” That quote is from an AAMC booklet entitled Quick Answers to Common Questions about Getting into Medical School. You can find it here: It has a lot of good information in a concise format.
      I hope that has been helpful! Let me know if you have more questions. As always, you can also use the “Contact Me” tab above or send me an email at ­čÖé


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