There are many systems for textbook perusal outlined in the study skills literature. These systems have acronyms and names such as SQ3R, SQ4R, SQRW, and Super Square; but all stress similar tactics.
Assume, as you attack a textbook, that you are not going to read it rapidly straight through as you would read a novel.
Be a flexible reader who can employ a variety of reading modes. A flexible reader will sometimes scan for specific information, sometimes skim for general ideas, sometimes study intently, sometimes makes study cards, recite and memorize. At Simon’s Rock students are very often asked to question and interact with the text through response journals.
Before you begin reading an assignment, do an initial survey of the text. Look at the title page. When was the text written? Put it in context. Who are the authors? What are their backgrounds and accomplishments? Study the table of contents. Determine how the book has been organized. Read the introduction or preface. See if there is an index or appendix. Are there study questions? Are there chapter summaries? And again, before you start each chapter, survey the chapter, noting sectional divisions, reading headings and topic sentences of paragraphs, looking at any study questions or summary, and studying any visual aids such as maps, charts, or diagrams.
Assess what level of reading intensity is appropriate to each section of an assignment or project; adjust your speed and care as you progress. The amount of reading required and the time available often influence the reading speed and the intensity of focus. Ask yourself what your purpose in is reading the material? What do you expect to gain? Is the subject familiar to you or totally new? How dense and difficult are the ideas and the information? Take into consideration how thoroughly you will be expected to retain the information. As you get to know your professors and the way they treat the readings for various classes, you will begin to get a sense of how your texts should be used. Some professors assign seemingly impossible numbers of pages to read as general background, others, especially in the sciences, assign fewer pages of textbook material, but that material must be totally mastered and memorized.
Your reading environment is significant. You want your study place to be neither too warm nor too cold. It should be free of unnecessary distractions, interruptions or noise. For optimum concentration you need to be in a space that is comfortable enough not to have discomfort distract you, but not so comfortable as to relax you into sleepiness. Ventilation should be adequate; dead air makes a person drowsy. This is all obvious information, but ideal study conditions are quite subjective. One person will have the hyper-focus to read in chaos, while another person might not be able to concentrate unless totally isolated in silence.
If you own the textbook, write in it, but in a way that will be useful rather than distracting later. Any underlining will be most meaningful if done after an initial reading of a whole section. Go back through the section and underline the crucial ideas. Make your marginalia systematic and useful. Argue with the author; argue with yourself as you read. Write possible exam questions in the margins. Mark the places in the text that are confusing and will need further study or explanation. Circle or list unfamiliar terminology or vocabulary to be looked up; write the definitions right there on the page.
Connect what you read to the great web of your understanding. This framework, rather than specifics of fact, is what holds the test of time. The web of your understanding, your belief system, grows and shifts through a lifetime, but it is a fluid and essential a part of your consciousness and your identity; it remains long after the facts memorized for a test have blown away.
References and Resources for further study:
Getting to Know Your Textbook, The Pivotal Words, The Reading Environment, Six Reading Myths, Using Your Textbook, Vary Your Reading Rate. The strategic learning videos on the Dartmouth Academic Skills Center site are informational as well.