One Scientist Reads A Science Text

Science Textbooks
Science Textbooks

In my writing, I claim that scientists read differently. When a scientist reads, it doesn’t look like an English lesson. I have argued (here) that scientists read a lot, and that they weren’t taught the best strategies at school. It seems as though most scientists and engineers taught themselves these strategies. Fine for them, but what about those left behind?

I want to demonstrate what science reading looks like. The following blog is my best attempt to read a textbook while noting what I am doing.

My favourite first-year textbook at university was Ohanian Physics. To demonstrate how I read when using a textbook, I started to re-learn a concept and at the same time pay attention to the strategies I was using.

First I used the contents to find the concept – I wanted the chapter rather than the specific page – and started to read.

I skimmed the introduction and some irrelevant sections until I found the part I wanted to learn. However, I got stuck almost immediately. The text referred to Gauss’ Law, which I couldn’t remember. I skimmed ahead, to look for clues, but no luck – the text assumed I knew it. I re-read the section to see whether it would jog my memory, then skimmed the preceding paragraphs. I couldn’t remember Gauss’ Law so I needed to go back and learn that first.

So I looked it up in the index. Gauss’ Law: 565, 567-673.

It has a whole chapter dedicated to it. I’d forgotten how important it is! I skimmed read the first two pages – I’d seen a subheading ahead that looked like the important part, but I didn’t want to miss anything vital before that. I looked at the equations and reminded myself of the maths on the way. My inner dialogue was something like:

Φ=EnA: I know this – it’s A-level and I’ve taught it recently. Not sure what the subscript n is, but I assume it isn’t too important. Just read the text below, n is for normal, good (it was important!)

Φ=EA cosθ: this is just the previous equation but where the field is not normal anymore. I’m happy with that.

Φ=E cosθ dS: This is a bit of a stretch, but it’s okay. I think dS is a small section of area – the diagram has a small area labelled dS – perfect.

A quick look at the text around these equations confirms my understanding:

“The quantity A cosθ can be interpreted as the projection of the area A onto a plane perpendicular to the electric field, that is, A cosθ can be regarded as the part of an area A that faces the electric field.”

The text, diagrams and equations work together to create the meaning. My attention flitted between all three before I was confident I understood. The fourth element in the comprehension is my own knowledge.

I was pretty confident with this section. I knew it already, but wanted to familiarise myself with the style etc before setting off onto Gauss’ Law (note, I used to understand and use Gauss’ Law – it isn’t a new concept for me).

I jumped ahead to the subheading I was interested in. I started reading this carefully.

If the volume within an arbitrary closed surface holds a net charge Q, then the electric flux through the surface is Q/εo

This is Gauss’ Law. I understand this, but I read it twice. The science teacher in me was looking at the wording. It is absolutely precise. In fact, it was all I needed to remember the concept.

However, I don’t think it would have been enough to learn it from first time.

Now it is time to go back to the original concept I was trying to learn….

I don’t read novels like that, or even education textbooks really. This is how I read physics. There are four elements: text, equations, diagrams and own knowledge. These are woven together by the reader to create understanding.

The strategies I used here were questioning. I was asking some basic questions of the text:

  • what does that word mean?
  • what does that symbol mean?
  • does the diagram help?
  • is that how I remembered it?

The second strategy is to summarise. I’m a teacher, and I notice that I summarise what I have just read as though for a confused student.

Two main strategies, and these are the two that make the biggest difference. They can be taught and they have a significant impact on students’ learning.

We can help you make better scientists.


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