How To Skim A Textbook When You Don’t Have Time To Read

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I’ve been both a student and an instructor, and I totally get it. Textbooks are dry and hard to read. But if you don’t have time to read the whole chapter like you’re supposed to, there is actually a better solution than just glazing your eyes over the first paragraph a few times.

Get out those Trapper Keepers and sharpen your No. 2 pencils—it’s Back-to-School Week! Going far beyond the classroom, we’re bringing you genius tricks and ideas on how to start routines, brush up on old skills or learn something new this fall.

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We’re talking about strategic skimming. This works better in some subjects than others, but it’s especially great for sciences like biology. Grab your nearest textbook and flip through the chapter you’re procrastinating from reading. Does it have lots of sections that each have their own headline? Charts and graphs? Best of all, illustrations and diagrams with captions explaining what they’re all about?

Next time you’re running late for class, try this: Open up the chapter, but don’t read any of the regular-sized text. Instead, read the subject headings, try to figure out what those charts are trying to tell you, and pretend that those big multi-part diagrams are the only thing you have to really understand.


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If you need hints from the text here and there, go ahead and read them. (Those section headings will help you find the right spot; also try reading the first line of each paragraph to help you get your bearings). By the time you’re done with this activity—go ahead and call it something exciting like “power skimming”—you’ll actually have a pretty good big picture view of what the heck the chapter is about.

Is this cheating? No. Because if you are a diligent student, you can then go back and read the actual text, and it will make a lot more sense now that you’ve seen what the important parts are.


And if you’re not a diligent student, well, you’ll be slightly less lost during lecture than your classmates who didn’t crack open the book at all. Do you know how many times I, as an instructor, asked a quiz question that was literally answered in a subheading toward the end of the chapter? A lot, okay? You’d be surprised how many people get those wrong.

But hey, at least now you won’t be one of them.

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