Stages of studying: 1 - Inspectional Reading


Fábio P. Fortkamp


November 9, 2022

Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book is one of the my favorite books. Although the authors talk about “normal” books (fiction, non-fiction, poetry), I think most of its teachings apply to textbooks and other materials to study in an academic sense.

This is the first in a series of posts detailing how I study hard materials and try to extract the most knowledge from them.

Studying in stages

The basic premise of the book, and something that I apply to almost everything I read, is that reading or studying should be done in stages. I felt quite at home when Adler and van Doren talk about the classic error of trying to read a difficult book, stumping into the first hard concept, and then being stuck for hours in the same chapter - without even understanding what the book is about. Depending on the book level, you will not understand it in the first reading.

Hence, when you have anything to read in front of you, the first step is to do an Inspectional Reading - a high-level form of reading, aiming for general concepts and the overall structure of the book or document, without wasting time on details.

What to look when inspectional reading

The authors of How to Read a Book make it clear: inspectional reading is active and demand you take notes. Lately I’ve been a fan of taking notes in paper notebooks:

Photo of a notebook with notes titles “Inspectional Reading”

Notice above what I noted: the overall structure of a Heat Transfer book I was studying, the main themes threated, some comments on the notation used, the main equations that grabbed my attention, and then some tasks to delve deeper.

When I was reading the material above, did I encounter some concepts that I did not understand? Of course! But I did not let it stop me of skimming through the whole book. I was actually looking for some details about differential equations, and I have to say I do not understand them yet – but I do know that this book has some answers, and I know where to look. I need another deep work session to do an analytical reading - subject of another post.

Time constraints

It is fundamental that an inspectional reading is time bounded - an hour, at most. The purpose of this stage is to get answers quickly and not waste time

Here is another example when I was studying some old class notes:

Photo of notebook with notes

I was examining these class notes because my father made me take all of my old college notebooks from his home, and while studying the Heat Transfer book I remember of a Linear Systems class that I took in college.

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A post shared by Fábio P. Fortkamp, Dr. Eng. | Mechanical Engineer (@fpfortkamp)

I thought studying these notes might be useful for my projects - but as I completed my Inspectional Reading, I realized this material was not right (for now). I did not have to read two chapters in detail, which would take much more time, to reach that conclusion.

The other stages

Studying is deeply important to me as a researcher, and I treat it seriously. I can only advance in my carrer if I have impactful ideas.

Stay tuned for more posts of my study techniques and tips…