January 7th, 2011

How Students Read Textbooks: Sink or Skim Approaches Defined


The Teaching Professor Blog is now located on Magna’s Faculty Focus website. We are happy to be here and happy to be welcoming new readers. As our regular readers know, this blog contains a variety of content. It may highlight findings from a study, describe an instructional strategy, raise issues and concerns, or comments on solutions. It regularly offers advice, aspiring to propose ways and means that enhance learning. And sometimes the message is inspiration. Teaching isn’t always easy and learning can seem very elusive.

Along with the new location comes a change in the blog’s format. We’ll be posting once a week—the post will be longer and will likely address more than one topic. One thing I like to change about the blog: the number of comments the posts engender. I’d love for the blog to be more of a conversation and less of a monologue. I’ll be looking for you comments and responding to them more regularly in subsequent blogs.

Sink or skim
“Sink or skim” is part of a very clever title to a qualitative study of how students read the textbook in an introductory accounting course. Even if your students don’t read accounting texts, some details make the findings of interest. The accounting course enrolled sophomore students from a variety of programs and majors. It was a course that relied heavily on the text to provide organization and course content.

The faculty researchers collected data via a learning journal assignment (worth 10 percent of the course grade) in which students responded to a series of open and closed questions about how they were reading each of the book’s 13 chapters. The researchers ended up with 2,060 pages of handwritten text for their analysis.

The “sink or skim” moniker characterizes the two major methods of reading the text. There were a number of students (who turned out to be the better ones, as we could have guessed) who read the topics in the book slowly, working to let the material “sink” in to their understanding and memory. And then there were the students who skimmed—reading quickly, hoping that learning would occur miraculously just because their eyes had touched the words on the page. Most of these students aspired to return to the text and use a sinking strategy. Beyond these two generic approaches, the researchers note that “students expressed few clear and consciously articulated reading strategies.” (p. 30)

There are all sorts of interesting student quotes from their learning logs in the article and lots of other provocative details—like the percentage of students (85%) who skipped the embedded self-study quizzes and the end-of-chapter demonstration problems (68%). In this class, 17% read the book before the content was discussed in class, 28% read it on the day when the content was discussed and 55% read it after attending all the lectures on the chapter.

In their Implications for Practice section, the researchers write, “there is no need to scare students by emphasizing how difficult the material is in an attempt to spur students to put more effort into reading the textbook. Students already fear the textbooks and expect topics to be confusing; in our study, students were not motivated by their anxiety to adopt better reading strategies.” (p. 38)

Based on the study’s findings, the researchers created a handout of advice on reading the textbook which they distribute to students and invite other instructors to use and revise. It’s a great resource. Here are the four main bulleted points, each of which are expanded on handout.

  • Read the chapters to learn rather than to just get through them.
  • Don’t get discouraged if you initially find some material challenging to learn.
  • Clear up confusion as it arises.
  • Think of reading as the initial stage for studying.

The questions students responded in their learning logs are also included in the article. You might not want to generate a 2,000 pages of student writing to read, but improving student reading of course materials begins with understanding their current reading habits.

Reference: Phillips, B. J. and Phillips, F. (2007). Sink or skim: Textbooks reading behaviors of introductory accounting students. Issues in Accounting Education, 22 (1), 21-44.