→ Students/Faculty → Reading a Math Book
Updated 19 Nov 2021

How to Read a Math Book

Copyright © 2003–2024 by Stan Brown,

Summary: You can’t read a math book the way you read other books. It takes a special approach to read math, not just pass your eyes over it. You may need as long as half an hour to get through one page, but you will understand it when you’re done.

See also: How to Succeed in Math
How to Study Math

See also: This page is also available in Dutch.

Two Kinds of Reading

In a Usenet article, Chan-Ho Suh neatly summed up the “two kinds of understanding a math text. The first is in being able to follow, reconstruct, etc. a proof [or solution method]. The second lies in rewiring one’s brain so that it’s obvious why the theorem is true” or why the solution works. “Contrary to impressions you may have garnered from your math courses, the first kind of understanding is not the primary goal, … but the second kind definitely is.”

What Not to Do

Don’t memorize too much. Many students try to commit everything to memory. Math doesn’t work like that: you are learning methods of problem solving. If you treat the material like a mass of unrelated facts, it will be a big jumble in your head and you’ll very naturally feel frustrated.

True, there are a few formulas you’ll need to have available. Write them down on one “cheat sheet”. Look at them in odd moments and practice saying them over to yourself. Then write them down at the start of any test.

Don’t start with the homework problems. The assigned problems are not “the homework”. They’re the last part of the homework. The first part is reading and understanding today’s section of the textbook.

Most students can’t just listen to the lecture and then immediately solve the homework problems. The textbook is there to reinforce your understanding of what was covered in class and to explain points the lecture didn’t have time to cover.

Don’t be afraid to go back. Math is relentlessly cumulative. If you don’t understand something in today’s lesson, perhaps it’s because you didn’t really understand something in an earlier lesson, or you’ve forgotten it. Go back and re-learn that earlier material.

Granted, it can be discouraging to go back to an earlier section of the book. But you are not moving backward. You’re still making progress because you’re strengthening your understanding of that earlier concept.

What to Do

First skim for an overview. Nobody understands something complex on first reading: about all you can hope to do is get a general sense of what it’s about and perhaps one or two of the main points of the argument. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you; it’s how almost everyone’s mind works. That first reading just lays the framework for you to fill in later with details.

Then reread with concentration. Read slower this time. Highlight important points for further study. (Don’t overdo the highlighting. Distinguish key points and highlight them; that should be well under 50% of the text. Color-code if that helps you.)

Some students find it helpful to take notes on separate paper while reading. If you’ve never done this, you might want to give it a try. You may find that it helps focus your mind and fit the concepts together better.

Go through each step of each example. Don’t read; write. Many examples have some steps left out; you should write down a complete solution with all steps. Make sure you understand how the book gets from each step to the next step.

This is where many students shortchange themselves. There’s a huge tendency to hit an example and have the eyes just jump to the next bit of English. But remember that you learn math by doing, not by reading. You need to work each example to understand the concept.

Fill in any gaps. If there are still any words or concepts you don’t understand, go back to the book and learn them. If you need to, put them on the list to talk over with your study buddy or with a tutor, or see your instructor outside of class if s/he’s available.

Whatever you do, get those problems cleared up before the next class so that they don’t interfere with your understanding that lecture.

Think about what you’ve read. Fit it in with what you already know. Is this a more general version of a specific case you learned earlier? Is this a shorter method for something you previously learned to do a longer way? Does this use something you learned previously that looked useless at the time?

Make it your own. Can you explain this to someone else? (This is where a study group really shines.) If there’s no one else available, can you explain it aloud, without stumbling? If you can do that, you probably understand it. Don’t shortchange yourself here! “I sort of get it” means you need to go over it again (but maybe after a break).

Divide and conquer. If you have a whole chapter to learn, master one section at a time. Try to spread your work evenly over the available time.

Do the homework problems. If you don’t understand how to do one, look back in the book for a similar problem. Don’t just push numbers at it; make sure you understand the example and see how to apply it.

A separate page gives some suggestions for working story problems.

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