Critical Thinking

Guiding Students to Know When to Skim and When to Focus

Students need explicit instruction on the benefits of skimming material and when this method is insufficient.

October 19, 2023
Thai Liang Lim / iStock

Expert learners possess a remarkable skill: the ability to seamlessly switch between focusing on a specific task and skimming through material or exploring new experiences to gain insights across various situations or ideas. This “focus switching” appears to deepen knowledge in specific content while also providing a breadth of ideas across contexts to develop innovative solutions to problems.

When we skim, we are quickly looking at new information, attempting to find key points, and picking up a few surface-level ideas. This strategy is an immensely valuable skill when time is limited, when we need to get a general idea or gist of multiple ideas, or when we are trying to make connections with ideas across new contexts. On the other hand, when we focus on a topic, we need to slow down and key in on the particular subject or task. When we focus this way, we delve into the details, analyze key themes, and develop expertise in the core principles and practices of a discipline.

The ability to switch between skimming and focusing is a habit that students should cultivate as they develop their expertise in learning.

Focus Switching

Expert learners, unlike novices, don’t view skimming and focusing as opposing forces. Instead, they recognize them as complementary tools in their learning arsenal. In addition, expert learners react to the type of learning that is required by using specific practices that are necessary to focus on or skim material. Finally, expert learners are aware of the type of learning and their actions within different tasks by reflecting on their performance and the fit between the task and their actions.

In summary, expert learners recognize, react, and reflect on the act of switching between skimming and focusing to enhance their knowledge and skills.

Skimming allows learners to broaden their horizons to a wide range of subjects and ideas without committing excessive time to any single one. This breadth of knowledge can lead to serendipitous discoveries, exploring careers and potential passions, looking for similar problems or solutions across contexts, and identifying broader perspectives on an issue. These skills support the development of innovation, creativity, and empathy.

Recognizing the Limits of Skimming

One of the most significant advantages of skimming is its efficiency. However, skimming reduces what Maryanne Wolf, the director of UCLA’s Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, calls cognitive patience. This act creates an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers become rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention.

Learners who react to the task with the right habits tend to learn at a much faster rate. They engage in sustained reading, writing, and talking about a topic when they are focusing on it. When they are skimming, they are engaged in mixed practice using different tools and strategies.

Expert learners take time to determine the fit of their strategies with the task at hand. They ask, to what extent did this task require skimming or focusing? How well did I sustain my use of the right strategies for this particular task?

Practicing Skimming and Focusing

So, how can students actively practice skimming and focusing to strike the right balance between short-term and long-term learning gains?

1. Engage in tagging, skimming, and focusing activities. Students should be able to identify what needs deep focus and what can be skimmed. Not every piece of information requires their undivided attention. They should allocate time and energy wisely based on their priorities.

2. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of focus switching. Teachers should work with students to redefine engagement of novel situations as the type of learning that is based on skimming. Focusing on a topic sharpens our knowledge and skills and builds engagement over time. Teaching students the differences between these practices and that they conjure different emotional responses is helpful. Focus likely is not emotionally engaging but produces a cognitively engaging experience instead.

3. Plan for skimming and focusing. Students should establish a structured schedule for studying that includes dedicated time for both skimming and focusing. For instance, they might reserve mornings for deep work on a sustained reading of printed text, working through a series of math problems on the same topic, or practicing writing an essay on a specific topic. In the afternoons, they might engage in skimming other stories that relate to the central theme of their essay and surfing the web for news that offers different perspectives.

4. Learn how to skim effectively. Skimming is not about merely scrolling through content; it’s about extracting valuable insights efficiently. Students should learn to scan headings, subheadings, and summaries to identify key points and practice this skill regularly to improve their efficiency. Moreover, students should use tools such as Venn diagrams to compare situations, perspectives, and tasks to be better prepared for sustained work.

5. Take time to delve into deep work. When it’s time to focus, students should eliminate distractions and create an environment conducive to deep work. This could involve setting specific goals for sustained work (e.g., I will focus on sustained reading for 15 minutes), working in focused time blocks, and journaling about their ability to prevent distractions.

6. Reflect on study habits and adjust. Students should periodically evaluate their skimming and focusing strategies to determine if they are aligning with their long-term goals. They should also ask themselves if there are areas where they can improve their approach and be open to adjusting their habits as needed.

These strategies enable students to find the ideal equilibrium between short-term efficiency and long-term retention.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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