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Don’t Do All Your Assigned Readings!

Written by Alison Ross

Photo by Kari Shea

skimming your assigned reading

As a kid, I loved reading. I read every young adult novel I could get my hands on. I even enjoyed the books assigned in English class and had one of the best reading/writing marks in my grade. My mom thought I would take AP English in high school—she even went out of her way to enroll me in a high school that offered AP English.

Now that I’m twenty-two, I believe that AP English ruined my relationship with reading.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many excellent things about AP English: everyone bonded well in our small class; some of the books we read were good and thought-provoking. But most of the books were boring and hard to follow. I was jealous of the kids in academic English who were assigned To Kill A Mockingbird—a relatable story about people. In AP English, we read A Room of One’s Own—a dry feminist essay by Virginia Woolf from the 1970s.  I even lost marks when I wrote about To Kill A Mockingbird in an essay on postmodern literature. My teacher wrote, “I would suggest using a more challenging book for an example.”

Forced to read stories I wasn’t interested in, I ended up skimming them and looked up SparkNotes to give me a boost for the exam. I forgot how to get lost in a book’s world.

I missed the escapism reading gave me when I was a middle schooler.

When I arrived at university, professors offered much more interesting books than the ones I had to read in AP English. Sure, this included boring textbooks, but office hours with my professors led to plenty of book recommendations and a reinvigorated love for reading. But, I had to balance this newfound love with boring textbook chapters. That’s when I learned to appreciate the skimming skills that AP English taught me. I learned that when it comes to assigned readings, you shouldn’t do all of it.

Assigned readings are important. They help you learn and understand the course material. But profs often (perhaps inadvertently) assign long chapters that include fluff paragraphs containing information that won’t show up on the exam. Reading these fluff paragraphs can be unproductive and can get in the way of your jobs, extracurriculars, and other coursework.

Here’s how you can pick and choose what to read in your textbook:

1. Attend ALL Lectures and Prioritize Lecture Content Over Textbook Content

woman wearing backpack facing concrete building
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

One of the biggest mistakes that new students make is skipping classes because they figure they can just read the textbook and lecture slides. Here’s some insider knowledge: profs often give important information during lectures that skippers miss out on. Profs also hint at what topics in the textbook you should focus on. If your Canadian politics textbook has a chapter on Indigenous issues and a chapter on free trade, you should skim the chapter that your prof doesn’t discuss much in lecture. And focus on the chapter your prof does place an emphasis on.

When taking notes during lecture, don’t simply copy off the slide. You can always read the slide later. Take notes on what the prof is saying, even if they go on a tangent. It helps you develop a deeper knowledge of the topic without having to read every dry sentence in your textbook.

2. Reading for “The Big Picture”

person sitting with an open book, reading
Photo by Fabiola Peñalba on Unsplash

Sometimes you need to learn specifics, and sometimes you need to focus on “the big picture”. It’s important to make a distinction between the two and understand what your prof is looking for.

It often depends on the subject. In a course on human anatomy, you need to know the specific names of every bone and muscle (or something like that—don’t ask me, I have a BA). In a course on sociology, it may be more important to focus on the big picture: why is our society the way it is?

If it’s not necessary to memorize sentences, focus on individual paragraphs. Try to think strategically. If your upcoming tests have essay components to them. How can I put this into my own words to create a compelling argument?

3. An Assigned Reading Is Very Important in Some Classes. In Others, Not So Much.

woman flipping her hair, books all around
Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

In my third year of university, I took a class on video production. The professor often assigned film analyses for readings. They were interesting at times, but they didn’t really help in the course. Our grade centred entirely around making videos and in-class participation. I usually skimmed or outright ignored those readings and focused on the readings for my more theory-based classes. This gave me more time to focus on storyboarding, editing, and making the best video possible. If the professor assigned a piece that I was interested in reading, I just held on to it and read it for fun later.

TL;DR Sometimes you just gotta skim!

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