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Monday Master Class: The Art of Pseudo-Skimming

February 25th, 2008 · 8 comments

The Tale of Two Reading StylesWords

Most college students are quick to learn the difference between skimming and reading. The former has you move your eye quickly across the page, picking up the occasional observation or idea. The latter has you actually read and process every sentence, and then try to record in your notes the salient arguments. We skim when the assignment is not too important. We read when we know we’ll later be tested on the material.

In this post, I want to teach you a third technique. One that occupies the middle ground between skimming and reading. It retains the comprehension benefits of reading while attempting, as much as possible, to achieve the speed of skimming. It’s a technique known to most upper-level humanities students; the key to taming massive reading lists without going insane. Different people call it different things. I use the term: pseudo-skimming.

It works as follows…

Pseudo-Skimming Basics

The core of the pseudo-skimming technique is to tackle the assignment paragraph by paragraph. Specifically, there are two types of paragraphs: important and filler. You only need to read the former; these hold the information that will come up in class discussion or make it onto an essay exam.

A general rule: the longer the reading, the higher percentage of filler paragraphs. This is good news. If you can identify which paragraph is which, and focus on reading only those that are important, you can significantly cut down your reading time without losing the important info missed by skimming.

The key is figuring out how to do this identification on the fly.

The Staggered Pace

The rhythm of pseudo-skimming is one of jogs and sprints. As you enter a new paragraph, you slow and read the first sentence. You ask: “what is this paragraph about?” If you get the sense that there is probably not much new meat here: abort! Jump to the start of the next paragraph, and ask the question again. Otherwise, stay the course, and actually read the damn thing.

There is a real art to this technique. You must intuit an answer to the importance question with a minimum of time. The more you read in the class, the better you’ll become at this. To help buff your skills, here are a few types of common filler:

  1. A long background story. Once you recognize the importance of the story (e.g., yet another example of the artists fighting!), you can keep aborting paragraphs until the story is over.
  2. Asides. If the author conducted a lot of historical research for the article, she can’t help but throw a few bits of extra information and explanations here and there. You’re not a historian. Skip!
  3. Exceptions. Professional scholars worry about being definitive, so they liberally sprinkle in exceptions and caveats to their arguments. If these run long, start aborting the paragraphs.
  4. Extra details. For a given idea, it is often sufficient to capture a few good pieces of evidence that supports it. If the author continues, in future paragraphs, with more details than you need, start skipping.

The Feel of Pseudo-Skimming

Once you catch the hang of pseudo-skimming, reading careful assignments takes on a different feel. There are relatively long stretches of you engaging the text, paragraph after paragraph, at a slow pace, internalizing the information. Then, suddenly, you are bounding from topic sentence to topic sentence, skipping paragraphs at a rapid rate. Wait! An important point! The pace slows again. And so on…

It may take a while to master this technique. But once you recognize the motivating idea — even for important readings not every paragraph needs to be read — you’ll find that the most beastly assignments suddenly seem a lot more manageable.

8 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Art of Pseudo-Skimming

  1. Michael F says:

    I’ve made it a bad habit to pseudo-skim all readings. Even wonderful fiction books that I am only reading for pleasure.

    I just started my own academic blog, and I put How to Win at College as the book of the month. Then I just so happened across your blog. The book should arrive sometime this week, and I look forward to reading it.

  2. Ilham says:

    This is an interesting entry Cal, and surprisingly very close to the way I take notes from readings or textbooks. The only exception is that I usually read about 1/3 of the paragraph before noticing it was a filler.

    I will try in the next coming weeks to implement this system and see how it goes.

    By the way, there is a note-taking session (for Bio students) happening this week at my school that is being hosted by a humanities student. I was wondering if you ever attended something like this, and if it was effective or if you ever obtained any new skills.

  3. Tina says:

    Hey! This is a great strategy that I use almost all of the time. Especially for high school textbooks. Another thing that might be useful is to just read the first and last (couple of) sentence of the paragraph. Most of the time you get the main ideas presented in the paragraph that way while being able to skip the examples/filler etc. As well sometimes a paragraph may start off with an anecdote or something but progress to important information, so skimming the last few sentences is also good to prevent missing out on these!

    By the way, I’m really enjoying your blog! It’s great! I’m looking forward to trying them out for undergrad next year :)

  4. Mizter says:

    @Tina note that you don’t want to memorize the whole blog. You might want to keep improvising your habits again and again and keep referring to the blog when you have trouble.

    I highly discourage partying/drinking as it reduces your concentration. It’s really nice to be completely away from those things: you just don’t crave or want them at all.

  5. Sarah says:

    So I get that speed reading/skimming has to be done with a typical course load, but you never know which texts of the readings the professor will delve into discussion on- and in this type of round table lit course where in depth discussion is unavoidable and your points/ insights on the texts is a big part of the grade I think skimming will just undermine and weaken your analysis and insights..essentially you are just BS-ing if you skim lol which is fine but a waste of a $1000 course, not to mention devalues the whole point of learning… It sucks and I hate it but I think sometimes you just have to actually read the entire texts, especially in Lit courses. In mho anyway…

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