September 6, 2013

Skimming To Learn


The art of skimming is a too often denigrated skill. When I encourage people to skim a book, long article or any other type of reading, I am often met with stares of disbelief that I would encourage skimming over what must surely be important material. Well, I am most definitely encouraging skimming.

Skimming is not only a generally useful skill, but I think a vital one for good self-educators. Since I think skimming nonfiction books is a particularly useful form of skimming, let’s use the example of skimming a book about a subject you want to learn. Yes, of course you might want to read the book in its entirety, and in many cases I would encourage that, but there is tremendous utility in skimming a book first to lay a foundation. Especially if you are new to the subject area you are studying.

When you carefully skim a book, you are constructing for yourself a basic, foundational schema of the subject matter – a mental map of sorts. If it is a subject area entirely new to you, this mental map will help to organize your learning. It will help you identify high-level topic areas on which to focus your learning. It can serve as a simple introduction to the subject at the same time.

You might read the book’s introduction, then skim each chapter’s headings and sub-headings, perhaps reading the first sentence below a heading to add a bit more depth to the overall architecture of the subject. Taking a few simple notes during this skimming process can produce a great outline that will guide your learning going forward. How can you proceed to learn something if you have not a clue what it is you are supposed to be learning in the first place. Skimming and the subsequent optional outlining gives you the foundation and structure to guide your learning in the right direction.

If you already know something about a subject, skimming still has a use. Skimming new material can augment your already existing mental map of the subject or create new mental connections between ideas, concepts and facts. It is by creating new mental connections between all that you learn that your knowledge and skill become most useful and also more likely to stick with you longer.

In his article Continue Your Own Learning and Development Jason Womack mentioned what is essentially a skimming technique for nonfiction books. He suggests three quick steps in the process. First, read the table of contents, glossary and index to familiarize yourself with the main topics in the book. Second, read titles, subtitles and any text that’s bolded or otherwise emphasized. Finally, read the first sentence of every paragraph to delve a bit deeper into the content. Womack claims that with this technique you can read the average business book, for example, in about an hour. He also wisely suggests that if you find something particularly interesting in your quick scan, go ahead and read more of that section. (Note: Fewer books today have glossaries and indexes, although you will likely still find them in books such as academic textbooks or other scholarly books.)

Womack’s advice is a classic example of a skimming methodology and a pretty good one that will serve any self-educator well if applied to their learning.

So foster your skimming skills. No, you are not wasting time when you skim. In fact, you are likely speeding up your learning by providing yourself with a much needed structure upon which to base your learning efforts.

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