First off, who doesn’t spend their childhood dreaming of becoming a professional skimmer? No, not a “swimmer,” a skimmer. An article published by UNC’s learning center details how to master the art of skimming and enhance our reading comprehension. When you really think about it, how much of our research processes, or academic experience as a whole, involve skimming texts? For me, a pretty substantial amount–it’s what helps me to accumulate as many helpful resources as possible. When looking for evidence, we’re not going to read tens or hundreds of pages just to find a small sliver of validating research. Regardless of how important skimming is, I have never reflected consciously on what strategy I use to soak up the most amount of information from a text while merely glancing at it. So what would happen if we learned to improve this skill, or even understand it as one (a skill)?
In “Skimming,” an article published by the University of North Carolina, the act of skimming is picked apart and reexamined. It is defined here as a strategy, a “selective reading method in which you focus on the main ideas of a text.” The author instructs readers to skip sections of the text that are composed of small details and anecdotes. We are most likely to find core concepts and big ideas in the introduction, chapter summaries, first and last sentences of paragraphs, bold words, and text features. By focusing on these aspects, we are “extracting the essence of the author’s main messages rather than the finer points.” However, skimming surely does get a bad rep as a lazy alternative to in-depth reading. Skimming can be extremely helpful in familiarizing the reader with the structure and big picture of a text, and can be used to preview a text before reading. You should use it purposefully, as an efficient mechanism to “cover vast amounts of material more quickly and save time for everything else you have on your plate.” To my surprise, there are methods of skimming. One method involves paying close attention to visual and verbal cues. When we are cognizant of the authors changes in direction, we notice shifts that signal the delivery of main ideas. Examples of these clues are “however, although, moreover” and “in addition to.” Charts, graphs, or figures can also prompt an analysis, where the main idea is reiterated.
The article concludes with a cautionary message, “know your context.” Arguably, this is the most significant piece of advice offered. While skimming can be a tremendously impactful tool for research and studying, it is important to think critically about whether or not you need to understand the content holistically. If so, it’s not the right time to skim and call it a day. If used at the wrong time, or in the wrong context, the effects can be unfavorable.