Learning from reading printed text is a kind of problem-solving activity it is own right. The problem is how to acquire new information from the pages of a book, and the solution requires active engagement of your mind as you read. This is often more difficult that it may seem at first, especially when the subject matter is complex and/or the source text is poorly written. Given the fact that much more technical information is available in text form than in any other format, and also the fact that continuous learning is absolutely essential in the field of instrumentation, active reading is an indispensable tool for student success as well as for continued professional growth in the field of instrumentation.
A very common mistake made by struggling students is to limit themselves to the reading assigned by their instructor(s), when better books might be available. If homework assignments are given from a particular assigned text, it is understandable why a student might think this is the only appropriate text to use. However, textbook selection is an imperfect process, often influenced by factors other than optimal learning (e.g. instructor bias, publisher influence, etc.). Sadly, textbooks are sometimes chosen not on their merits as a learning resource but rather by whether or not the textbook comes complete with pre-made exercises and examinations to be used in class (thus relieving the instructors of much work creating these on their own). As a student you must take responsibility for your own learning and seek the best books available for learning, even if this means only using the assigned text as a source of homework problems!
Thanks to the internet, searching for high-quality books is very easy. Not only may you peruse titles and reviews, but many booksellers also allow limited access to these texts online so you can see firsthand how the books are written and decide whether or not each book would suit your needs.
If you are a student and you approach your instructor asking about other texts to read on the subject, you may find your instructor doesn’t like the assigned text any better than you, and has alternatives ready to suggest. This is often the case in courses where the text has been selected by committee.
If you examine the personal library of any highly competent technician or engineer, you will likely find multiple books covering the same topics. Building your own collection of useful texts for learning is a sound strategy. Not only will you find yourself referencing these books throughout your career, but you will find their multiple explanations of common concepts an easier way to learn than by limiting yourself to just one point of view.
A practical and common method to increase engagement while reading is to “mark” the paper pages of a book with notations, the idea being to note points of interest and thereby stimulate thinking as you read. For a brief primer on this subject I recommend Mortimer Adler’s essay How to Mark a Book.
We will begin our exploration of active reading with an example taken from page 101 of the classic text The Measurement of High Temperatures written by George Burgess and Henry Louis Le Châtelier in 1912. One reason for choosing such an old text is that the style of writing adds another challenge to the task of reading. For those already familiar with the subject of temperature measurement, the archaic writing style will help give you the perspective of a new student, encountering something unfamiliar for the first time:
This is the original text as it appears on page 101 of the book. Next, we will explore different ways of “marking” the text, as if we were a new reader to this subject.
The most rudimentary method of marking a book consists of underlining and/or highlighting with a felt-tipped pen:
Here you see how the reader has highlighted the paragraph introductory words in yellow ink, underlined names and dates with green lines, and underlined concepts with red lines. While such exercises may have helped the reader remain awake as well as generate cues for later cramming, it is doubtful they assisted the reader in understanding the concepts. A large degree of blame for this rather shallow and unproductive practice may be laid on instructional curricula emphasizing memorization and execution of procedures over conceptual understanding. Simply put, this is what you get when students expect to be quizzed on isolated bits of data: you get poor study habits such as this. Unfortunately, not only will this approach fail to yield deep understanding of the concepts, but it also reduces the act of reading to drudgery. When such practices are so common, it’s no wonder a great many students loathe academic reading.
The choice of highlighting versus underlining, or of one color over another, is relatively unimportant. Any process of “marking” a book merely by drawing attention to certain words within it suffers the same weakness: all you are doing is emphasizing specific words and phrases, not incorporating your own thoughts into the text. In order to be actively engaged in your reading, you must expose your own thoughts and reflections on what you read, not just emphasize specific statements made by the author. As Adler points out:
“Understanding is a two-way operation; learning doesn’t consist in being an empty receptacle. The learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. And marking a book is literally an expression of differences, or agreements of opinion, with the author.”
The thrust of Adler’s essay is that the reader gains the greatest understanding of a text by expressing their own thoughts about what they are reading: articulating questions, drawing conclusions, linking ideas, and otherwise being an active participant in the reading process rather than a passive observer.
With this in mind, let’s re-approach the text. Instead of simply emphasizing words and phrases, we will now show how a reader may articulate some of their own thoughts on the same page:
Here you can see the focus has completely shifted away from facts and figures, and toward concepts. Note the questions raised by the reader, either doubting their own understanding of the book or the author’s assertions. These questions need not be fully resolved at the conclusion of reading. Indeed, these may be excellent topics to raise in class once the student returns to school and has the instructor’s attention. Questions should be taken as a positive sign for active reading and not as an indication of trouble: if you read a large body of prose and have no questions of your own, you probably weren’t thinking deeply enough!
If this manner of marking the text seems messy and cluttered, one may opt to make all the notations on a separate piece of paper, or even typed into a computer for later printing and retrieval.
Even deeper engagement may be achieved if one takes the time to write an outline of ideas in the text. This is an exercise best done on a separate sheet of paper, or using a computer. An example is shown here, side-by-side with the original text. Note how an outline may include graphical sketches as well as words, and how it references the page number of the source text to make it easier to go back to the source and re-read if necessary:
What you see here are notes for just one page of Burgess’ and Le Châtelier’s text. Although there is no absolute rule for how detailed one’s notes should be, they should be expressed in one’s own words rather than copying the author’s words, and should at minimum express at least one statement and/or question from the reader per paragraph of source text, since each paragraph typically contains a distinct idea on the topic at hand. A complete outline of thermoelectric pyrometers would of course cover multiple pages of the source text, and not just the one page shown. Note how the outline includes cues for future learning – hints that there is more to this subject than what is immediately presented on this page of the text.
Writing your own outline of a text is especially useful when the text in question is densely packed with ideas and/or difficult to understand, because the act of outlining serves as a self-check for your own comprehension. With highlighting and underlining it is all too easy to lazily read the words and make these marks without really understanding what the text is saying. While outlining you know quite well when you haven’t understood the text because you simply won’t be able to express it in your own words. Instead of continuing to highlight in a state of blissful unawareness, you will find yourself stuck and unable to continue outlining. This prompts you to go back and scrutinize the text, going over it more carefully than before, until you find yourself able to continue outlining again.
Perhaps the most common objection to outlining text as you read is that the process is slow. This raises a very important point, namely that active reading should be slow. Facts and figures may be skimmed, but complex ideas take time to penetrate into your mind. Not only will outlining force you to slow down when you need to, but it will also serve as a gauge for later study when you review your own notes to see if you still agree with them. In the course of studying some topic, you will often find that your understanding of that topic changes from your first impression. Seeing this change for yourself allows you to better understand how you learn, and thereby gives you practical insight into the workings of your own mind when it comes time to learn something new.