Best Practices for Skimming Textbooks

By Danni White on October 24, 2017

via Classroom

Before you begin to judge this piece, let’s be honest about one thing: sometimes, we don’t read the assigned textbook chapters completely; instead, we skim.

It’s not a sin; rather, it is an efficient way to get the pertinent information we need without wasting time. We don’t read everything which, surprisingly, can increase our reading speed to the point where we begin to read everything in this way. Skimming is a skill of sorts, but the skill lies not in the skimming but in knowing the specific information to pull from a text.

So, since we all do it from time to time in school or during study times, we need to understand what we’re doing and that begins with a definition. Skimming is a tool that allows one to read a big chunk of information in a small space of time. It is when we look for the main idea of a piece of writing or of a chapter, gain what is important from the text, and then deduce the rest to fill in the gaps.

Skimming works better with nonfiction than with fiction. One reason is that nonfiction is mostly made up of facts and it is easier to deduce what the next step in a sequence was if you skimmed part of it. With skimming, you look for some details that are connected to the main idea, helping you to remember it better.

While it does not sound like it, skimming is not a mindless activity that is done haphazardly. It is not just speed reading or reading the last and first lines of a text. There is actually a structure to it that makes it a systematic technique to find the most information and retain the most information in the least amount of time.

Here are some things to consider when skimming a textbook (or any piece of content for that matter):

1. Read the table of contents

This will give you a basic idea of the primary divisions that are contained in the book. It will also give you a chronological view of the topic matter and you can begin connecting the dots from what you know already to the new material you will learn.

2. Read the chapter overviews

Within most textbooks, you will find a brief overview at the front of each chapter. The overview will allow you to gain a basic understanding of the chapter which will build upon the table of contents.

3. Read the tables and charts

Look through all of the main headings and go through each page to read the captions under the tables and charts or the information on the tables and charts themselves to gain a better understanding of the surrounding text. Remember, a picture often tells a thousand words, and that’s no truer than in a textbook.

4. Locate the main idea in the introductory or topic sentence paragraphs

Honestly, I’ve done a lot of “studying” for tests like this. Locating the main idea in the introductory paragraph or the bold-face paragraphs will help to grasp the main idea and then you can deduce information from prior knowledge to fill in the gaps.

5. Read fully what is significant

When you have come across a section (paragraph or page) that is significant, make sure you go ahead and read the entire text to make sure it is actually significant. Resist the temptation to read every detail that is not relevant to the overall understanding so that you can have the time to get through the entire chapter(s).

6. Make an outline

If necessary and helpful, make an outline of the main topics that you have read and then review it to fill in any gaps that remain. This may be helpful when writing a research paper or when studying for an exam. Most times, however, outlines can just be another exercise that takes up time but doesn’t get you anywhere.

7. Read end of chapter summaries

Again, this is in most textbooks. Summaries at the end of each chapter identify the main points that are to be understood from the chapter. Additionally, sometimes, there is a glossary or definition of terms used in the chapter that can be read as well.

Skimming a text is always about making the best use of time at hand. If you have a long rainy weekend where you will be at home all day with little to do, I would suggest using that time to read textbook chapters word-for-word. This is always the very best way to learn and get information that most other people would not know. However, just because it is written down does not obligate you to read it. If you take the time to pick and choose what to read thoroughly, what to skim read, and what to skip altogether, you will probably be surprised at all the information you will learn and comprehend in a short space of time.

Additionally, skimming can be good for research and overall study. So, let’s say you have a research paper coming up that needs 30 scholarly sources to support what you write. Most likely, you won’t be able to thoroughly read 30 scholarly sources in the time you have. Instead, you will read what is absolutely relevant and skim through the rest. When it comes to research though, know what you are looking for, explore key terms and words to help you locate information faster, read material surrounding those keywords, and then organize the material to make a cohesive paper.

Good skim readers do not give equal skimming opportunity to all forms of content. Instead, they identify what needs to skimmed and what needs to be read through and then proceed accordingly.

Danni White is a developmental psychology graduate student at Liberty University. She works in the digital publishing, media, and technology industries. After this degree, she will go on to work on a PhD in social psychology in which she hopes to do research on perception and social cognition’s impact on human behavior. She hopes to apply this research in corporate HR departments and community-based organizations. In her otherwise limited spare time, she blogs, writes and reads. She loves coffee, sports, music, cooking, meeting new people, and binge watching Netflix.

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