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Are we supposed to read chapters in textbooks?

  1. Aug 23, 2015 #1
    I currently study undergraduate physics.

    I used to have the philosophy that the only way you really learn stuff was by reading all the chapters in the textbook. But now I'm on my 5th semester taking upper-level undergraduate courses and starting to think this philosophy will drain all my energy away (consider I take 7 courses / semester).

    There's hardly any healthy way I can do all those long difficult homeworks they assign to me while at the same time reading 50 page chapters on relevant textbooks.

    So, I'm starting to think my main use of those books this semester is going to be to know how to solve problems and less to properly digest the concepts in it. I hate to do this, but I'm afraid I'll simply lose my mind if I read the chapters.

    What do you guys suggest? How did you do it as an undergrad?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 23, 2015 #2
    Read the relevant section in the textbook before each lecture, so that you have some exposure to the material and you can follow along better during the lecture. That's what I think the best way is.
  4. Aug 23, 2015 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    If you don't have the time or energy to read your textbooks with 7 courses, perhaps the problem is taking 7 courses.
  5. Aug 23, 2015 #4
    Well my university's syllabus says that ideally you take 7 courses / semester. I think in the US people take 4 or 5 -- don't know really.

    But I mean, lecture seems quite pointless when you read the books. All lectures have done for me is inform me about the particular question style my professor likes, and help me strategize about how to prepare for a test with that professor.

    If I don't read the chapters as thoroughly as I did before, then lectures wont be as pointless.

    Vanadium did you read the chapters all throughout your studies?
  6. Aug 23, 2015 #5


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    I always read my textbooks, both as a student and as a professor. But I never took more than three courses at once (I was on a quarter system as an undergraduate, so the courses were more intense than under a semester system) or taught more than four courses at once (semester system).

    I've always viewed lectures as supplementary to the textbook, not the other way around, which didn't mean it was safe to skip the lectures (unless you could get very good notes from a classmate, of course). As a professor, I always tried to include examples and details of problem-solving techniques that the textbooks didn't include.
  7. Aug 24, 2015 #6


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    How does 7 courses per semester make any sense?
  8. Aug 24, 2015 #7


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    It might be a matter of the country davidbenari is in. The rest of us may be speaking from experience of universities in the US. (I know I am.)
  9. Aug 24, 2015 #8
    My country has 5 technical courses, maybe + 1 humanitary course per semester
    I think 7 (if all technical) is just too much.
  10. Aug 26, 2015 #9
    I've heard of some people doing that. Mind you, it's generally 4 units per semester over here. I am overloading at 5 units plus research work, and I find that extremely daunting.

    7 units does sound insane.
  11. Aug 26, 2015 #10
    You can also skip the lecture entirely, provided your teacher won't drop you, the teacher regurgitates the book to you, and that 3 hour class time could be used self-study. Only works if you are good at self-studying and you personally are not getting anything from the lecture.

    Some teachers would take this as an insult and won't answer your questions, so do this at your risk.
  12. Aug 26, 2015 #11


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    No, it is not necessary to read all of the textbook. If it is a physics course, it is much more important to be able to do the problems (all the assigned ones, and most ones picked at random from the textbook). You read as much or as little as you need to master the material. I have read several textbooks almost from start to end (Kleppner and Kolenkow, Dugdale, Bekefi and Barrett, French and Taylor, Kardar) while others I have only read portions as I needed, not in their printed order (Gasiorowicz, Cohen-Tannoudji, Shankar, Landau and Lifshitz). Sometimes it may be necessary to read bits of books other than the main text - if there is a point that isn't clear to you after listening to the lecture or reading the main text. The most important thing to know is how get everything from the 4 or 5 equations that define the conceptual framework of the course (eg. Maxwell's equations in classical electrodynamics, postulates of quantum mechanics).
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2015
  13. Aug 26, 2015 #12
    It depends what the credit load for each course is. Like, a lot of physics courses in the UK used to use 10 credit courses, and have 6 of those per semester. Now most have moved to 15 credit courses with 4 per semester. Of course if they're all fundamentally different areas I can understand how it might be difficult to stay on top of it. Also more to the point you're probably getting a lot more breadth than depth, which is not necessarily a good thing.

    Anyway I rarely read textbooks unless I have specific things I'm unsure on and want a second look at it, usually I just go on the lecture notes + problems/past exams (and visit office hours whenever I feel the need). That said, I'm not exactly at the top of my class or anything so, easy come easy go :P
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