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.

  • William

    Thanks for the very useful article! As an educator, I'm always want information on how my students use the textbook; how I expect them to use it and how they actually end up using it can differ by student. I'm normally asked in each first class 'do we really NEED the text?'. I use it, talk to it, draw on examples and problems, and test from it. When students understand that you put value on the resource and will make it a high-touch item, the probability that they will invest in using it will shift a bit more into the positive column.

  • dave

    It is hard to argue with the observation that students who study, learn more than students who do not. Cognitive science has shown that memory is the residue of thinking. In contrast, mindless activity (whether referred to as “skimming” by students, “maintenance rehearsal” by cognitive psychologists, or “penance” by some with a particular religious background) is not likely to lead to long term retention. Ironically, this least effective learning strategy is often the first choice of many first year students.
    Writing is an activity that requires thinking. Other activities such as relating the material to yourself or your friends, answering study questions, or developing an appropriate graphic representation of key concepts or categories also require thinking. The more thinking (and the more different kinds of thinking) involved in study, the better the memory. This, however, is far from obvious to most of our students; our job as teachers is to make this lesson clear.
    Over the past few decades, I have come to rely on brief but challenging daily quizzes in most of my classes. These quizzes provide students with timely and reliable feedback on the level of their preparation for class. Students are first encouraged to quiz me on anything that is unclear in the chapter, then they take a 10 item multiple choice quiz. Immediately afterward, they retake the quiz in groups of three. Their quiz grade for the day is the average of the two scores. Students learn relatively quickly to read more effectively.
    I assure you that it is much easier and far more satisfying to teach a class in which most of the students have studied the material prior to class than it is to teach one in which few of the students are prepared and most are expecting to be enlightened, informed and/or entertained by the teacher. Every system is perfectly designed to yield the results observed.

  • Lori

    So to keep from re-inventing the wheel, are they making the handout available. I give my students a quiz at the beginning of every class based on assigned readings….my students complain in the evaluations how hard I am on them and how much time (disproportionately) they have to spend on my classes.

  • Fred

    The expanded handout was included as an Appendix in the paper. To make it available in an editable format, I have pasted it below …

    Advice on Using Your Textbook
    The following advice is generated from an in-depth study of 172 undergraduate students of varying backgrounds, all of whom were enrolled in an introductory financial accounting course.
    – Read the chapters to learn rather than just to get through them. Learning doesn’t miraculously occur just because your eyes have skimmed all the assigned lines of the textbook. You have to think and focus while reading to ensure that you sink the material into your understanding and memory. Use the learning objectives in the text to focus on what’s really important in each chapter.
    – Don’t get discouraged if you initially find some material challenging to learn. At various times, both the best and weakest students describe themselves as ‘‘confused’’ and ‘‘having a good grasp of the material,’’ ‘‘anxious’’ and ‘‘confident,’’ and ‘‘overwhelmed’’ and ‘‘comfortable.’’ The simple fact is that learning new material can be challenging and initially confusing. Success does not appear to depend as much on whether you become confused as it does on what you do when you become confused.
    – Clear up confusion as it arises. A key difference between the most and least successful students is how they respond to difficulty and confusion. When successful students are confused or anxious, they immediately try to enhance their understanding through rereading, self-testing, and seeking outside help if necessary. In contrast, unsuccessful students try to reduce anxiety by delaying further reading or by resorting to memorizing without understanding. Aim to clear up confusion when it arises because accounting, in particular, is a subject for which your understanding of later material depends on your understanding of earlier material.
    -Think of reading as the initial stage of studying. Abandon the idea that ‘‘studying’’ only occurs during the final hours before an exam. By initially reading with the same intensity that occurs when later reviewing for an exam, you can create extra time for practicing exercises and problems. This combination of concentrated reading and extensive practice is likely to contribute to better learning and superior exam scores.
    To learn more about the study on which this advice is based, see ‘‘Sink or Skim: Textbook Reading Behaviors of Introductory Accounting Students’’ (Phillips and Phillips 2007, Issues in Accounting Education 22 (February: 21–44)).

  • Cassi

    I just wanted to thank Fred for posting that list –that's a great resource.

  • Tom

    Such a great resource indeed. Lori, don't worry, time will pas and they'll thank you someday.
    Although when I teach people how to work in Photoshop CS3 I make short and informative tutorials using screen recorder from http://freescreenrecorder.net/
    If the info is put in a small video or short text it's very effective in teaching as students hate too much information.