Read the Preface
Most students skip the preface. Don't! Read the preface and you'll get essential information for understanding the author's perspective. The preface usually provides information about the author's objective, the organizational plan of the book, how the book is different from others on the market, and the author's background and qualifications. Once you know the author's objective or goal, it's easier to see relationships among the facts presented. The organizational plan is like a road map explaining where the author will take you. Reading the author's view of how the book is different from others on the market and learning about his or her background and qualifications provides gives you with more insight into his or her perspective, perhaps making it easier to comprehend the ideas that appear in the text.
Read the Introduction
Read the introduction to the book; it's into the book. The introduction lays the foundation for the rest of the text in the form of an overview and background information that will make it easier to digest information in the subsequent chapters.
Use the SQ3R Method
The SQ3R method is a systematic way of reading. It might seem like it takes more time to follow the SQ3R method, but it's a more efficient way of reading. You'll retain more of what you've read. If you're not familiar with the SQ3R method, you can learn more here.
Make More Than One Pass
Reading articles and textbooks often requires more than one pass. It usually takes two, three, or even more readings to grasp difficult concepts. Whether or not you decide to employ the SQ3R Method, you should always preview the material to be read. Skim the table of contents, preface, headings, and conclusions. Stop and think about the author's intent as well the instructor's purpose in making the assignment and purpose for reading.
In early readings, take the briefest of notes while reading by adding brackets in margins or underlining minimally. Note pages where you might want to take formal notes. After reading, take more extensive notes. When reading and note taking is are complete, reread all of your notes, think about what you've read, and add more notes based on your reflections. Your goal is to have notes that are concise, capture the reading - and replace it so that you don't have to go back and reread.
If you underline text, do so minimally and stay focused on the important details. Avoid the temptation to highlight every line. Heavy highlighting is a procrastination tool because usually you're marking what you should learn instead of focusing on learning it.
Read Before Class
Read the chapter before attending class so that you're familiar with the material beforehand. Note unanswered questions or particularly difficult material, and seek answers during class.
This article is adapted from The Psychology Major's Handbook (2003, Wadsworth).