Let's admit it. We've all used CliffNotes or the even more desperate "classmate notes."
Whether you blatantly ignored the assignment the night before, had nine more to do or genuinely forgot, everyone has missed a reading assignment. The sheer volume of reading asked of college students is onerous and unrealistic.
English majors especially know the pain of taking three literature classes in the same semester. Forget just getting the reading done, how about remembering what text you're talking about when you're in class or taking the test?
As a student, you know the pain of being overwhelmed by your homework, but there are some ways to get your reading, understand it and do well on the test. It is the art of skimming.
First, let me explain what skimming is not. Skimming is not a way to get out of homework. In some ways, it takes more work than reading. It does save time, taking less time simply because you are reading fewer words. You should not use this ability to neglect reading, since reading will give you a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the text as opposed to a general sense.
Skimming is a useful tool to catch up on lost time. If you work or have too much time dependent or time consuming work, skimming can take up the slack in your work.
By skimming you can breeze through a tome without drifting off. It actively engages the brain and gets you to look hard. Feeling the rush of crunching down on time also makes you more aware and alert as you skim, making you less prone to the "ghost reading effect" or reading a whole page without understanding a word of it.
To skim, first see if you can find any material to help you seek out themes of important events. Maybe your professor or TA provided questions for reflection on the writing. Before skimming (or reading for that matter), read these questions, or find some from someone who's taken the course before, read the book or the internet. Sparknotes.com is particularly helpful.
Armed with explicit knowledge of what's ahead, it's time to dive in to the reading. Have a notepad out or a pencil that you can use in the margins. When you skim, read the first sentence of each paragraph. For longer paragraphs, read the last sentence too.
Every page or two, make sure you're getting an understanding, at least generally, of what's going on. You have a mission. Get in, get any necessary info and get out.
Aside from the first-last method, try to find anything that's repeated and note that. Repetition builds importance. If the author repeats something it's supposed to be there. When you read something again and again, make sure you remember it.
The only place you should really be reading in its entirety is any sort of introduction. These will provide you with ideas of what to look for. Additionally, when you see sign posts like "I will argue," "it shall be shown," "understand xyz" or similar ideas, read those.
Similarly, ignore anything that's going to have extra bits like opinions interjected into an article. Try to find the juicy stuff: stuff you can talk about and write about.
If charts or pictures show up, scan them left to right, top to bottom and look for anything that stands out. On charts or graphs, these would be labels and the relevant data.
If there is extra material for context, pass over it, but keep it in mind. For pictures, find any sort of point of focus and get whatever the point of having this picture in the piece is and move on. Do not fall into the pitfall of gazing at pictures and getting distracted by whatever that third guy on the left is wearing. Get in, get the info, get out.
When skimming, jot down the essence of what's going on. Make sure to get a few details that stand out. Remember those sign posts and repetitions? Well put them to work now and get them into your notes for in class later. These will let you make additional notes in more detail in class that you might not get from skimming, but having skimmed you have context and a sense of them.
Before class, see if you can talk to someone and go over the notes, just to make sure you didn't miss something big. Let the person know that you just skimmed and you need to make sure you got the major points. They should be able to correct any errors and help you fill in missing bits.
Let it be said that I do not necessarily want everyone reading this article to consistently skim read all your papers and books. Instead, I hope that when you are at your academic rope's end and don't have time to read this might help you.
Otherwise, let it serve as a general guide to close reading and good note taking.