Whether you already consider yourself a seasoned speed reader or you’re looking to develop the skill, you've probably guiltily asked yourself: is speed reading bad for studying? It’s pretty obvious why the technique might pique your interest.

It’s just reading but faster, right? What could be the possible downside? And who wouldn’t want to learn faster, full stop?

This is not to mention the allure of looking like some sort of wunderkind in the library, pupils darting across the page, lips muttering to yourself, until you slam the book closed three minutes later, exclaiming “INFORMATION DOWNLOADED!”

Here at Brainscape, the world’s most efficient flashcard app, we’ve done extensive research into which studying techniques work best. Given that reading is a pretty massive part of studying, believe us when we say that if speed reading entire textbooks in one sitting were effective, we’d be all over it.

In this article, we'll be answering the following six questions:

  1. Is speed reading bad for your studies?
  2. How do you improve reading speed and comprehension?
  3. How do you best use speed reading?
  4. How do you actually build your knowledge on top of speed reading?
  5. Could flashcards increase your learning speed instead?
  6. So, speed reading: yay or nay?

Unfortunately, speed reading—at least the way it’s shown by the trademark “genius” character in most cheesy television—joins free lunches and inheritance emails from relatives you never knew existed in the “too good to be true” column.

Unless you truly are a genius with an eidetic memory, in which case you’re probably not reading blog posts on the internet, but instead working at the NSA, who recruited you at the age of 16.

Chess class taught by a kid
Ok, this kid can probably speed read.

This does not, however, mean that speed reading can’t serve a purpose. Speed reading can be a useful tool for learning. You may not be able to siphon knowledge off the page and straight into your brain via your eyeballs, but you can absolutely tap into it to improve the effectiveness of your studies.

First, let’s take a look at how speed reading can leave you feeling like you’ve studied but, in fact, tragically deficient of any quality learning …

1. Is speed reading bad for your studies?

Coffee spilt over course books
This is your brain on speed reading.

I know you want to learn how to improve reading speed and comprehension (more on that below) but you need to hear this first. Speed reading is a way to absorb the broad strokes and main ideas of a topic quickly, but at the expense of more specific details.

In other words, it gives you that 30,000-foot view of the subject or chapter, which is great for understanding the scope of your study work. And, therefore, how you should portion it out over the time you have left before your test or exam in order to cover everything in sufficient detail.

Speed reading DOESN’T give you a sophisticated understanding of the details and how the various facts related to each other. And tests almost always require you to demonstrate your understanding of both.

So, should you speed read? Or should you lovingly caress every word with your eyeballs like you’re reading a Jane Austen novel?

Both actually!

We’re here to help you build better study habits, and speed reading absolutely has a place in that strategy.

2. How do you improve reading speed and comprehension?

The most important thing about speed reading effectively isn’t knowing how to speed read, but WHEN to speed read. As we discussed in our detailed article on how to read your textbook effectively, speed reading is best used to establish a foundation or framework of knowledge before diving neck-deep into the nitty-gritty of the subject.

Speed reading excels at laying out the main concepts in your head. That mental outline can be hugely beneficial in preventing you from becoming overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new information.

Think of this initial work like building a (mental) library. Your first step isn’t to amass all the books (the facts) in one room (your noggin). Rather, you start off by laying out a framework of bookshelves (i.e. your subject overview). Once that framework is in place, the books can be neatly ordered and slotted into place.

So, how do you do all this?

3. How do you specifically use speed reading?

A wall of books

Let’s build that framework using three simple steps:

Step 1. Read the “Chapter outline” and “Chapter summary”

When you’re cracking open a brand new chapter, first, see if your textbook has that helpful “What you’re about to learn” section upfront ... a kind of chapter outline or summary of the main points. These are in the book for a reason: to provide a context, structure, and orientation for your learning.

In other words: the chapter outline is the bookshelf to all the facts and information contained by the chapter. And reviewing it is a great way to start erecting the foundation for deep and lasting knowledge of the subject in question.

Some books may eschew the “What you’ll learn” outline in favor of a “Chapter summary” at the end of each chapter (or even have both). That summary can work in much the same way, giving you a more rounded understanding of the most important points and allowing you to integrate them into your greater understanding.

Step 2. How to skim read effectively

Time for the actual speed reading! Skim the chapter, absorbing the prominent information, paying attention to:

  • The introduction and concluding paragraphs of each section.
  • Section headings and subheadings.
  • Bolded words and phrases.
  • Visual aids (like diagrams and graphs).
  • Bulleted points and lists.

If you want a deeper dive on effective skimming as a speed reading technique, check out this article from Dummies, makers of the “X for Dummies” books.

Step 3. Determine what’s important

Start thinking about what information from the chapter seems likely to make it onto the test. If your textbook is hammering a specific idea home repeatedly, it’s fair to assume that it’s an important thought, and your teacher or professor probably agrees.

If your textbook has actual practice test questions included at the end of the chapter, try to do them. Obviously you’re not going to do very well on a practice test about a chapter you haven’t truly read (this may also drive home why speed reading by itself isn’t effective) but the questions will give you insight into the key ideas you’re expected to come away with after reading the chapter.

Following these three steps, you’ve established for yourself an excellent starting point for diving into the meat of the chapter. Instead of trying to go from a blank canvas to a masterpiece, you’re painting by numbers, completing your base of knowledge piece-by-piece, with a clear image of the final result.

And now it’s time to start the actual painting ...

Painting and paint brushes

4. How do you actually build your knowledge on top of speed reading?

Now it’s time to grab your study beverage of choice, maybe snack on something from our guide to brain food, and start over, this time really reading the chapter.

You might be saying here: “What the heck, dude, I came to this article to read faster, and now you’re just telling me to read the chapter TWICE?”

Well, by using speed reading, as well as other intelligent strategies, you can hit the perfect sweet spot of minimum time for maximum knowledge retention. These strategies can minimize or even totally eliminate the time you waste on being confused or having to re-read passages because you don’t understand how a detail fits into the greater narrative of the subject. This is how to improve reading speed and comprehension.

Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be prepped to onboard and dock those details/facts/knowledge where they belong. You can become an even more effective study machine by highlighting, taking notes, and, best of all, creating a deck of flashcards in the Brainscape app as you read.

Brainscape flashcards with french words
Brainscape Flashcards can help maximize your learning speed.

5. Could flashcards increase your learning speed instead?

Just making flashcards will cement the information more thoroughly in your head, as they force you to consider how to reframe each important fact or point in question-and-answer flashcard pairs.

Also, when you’re finished, you’ll have a fantastic study asset you can use when you want to review that chapter. And you’ll benefit from the spaced repetition, metacognition, and active recall study techniques that are built into the Brainscape platform.

Pro Tip: Note the textbook page each question comes from, just in case you need to go back for a refresher.

If making flashcards sounds like work, well, sorry. Learning takes effort. That’s just a fact. Anyone can cut the amount of time they study in exchange for less knowledge and lower test scores. That’s not a strategy, that’s surrender.

What we here at Brainscape try to excel in—through both our articles and our app—is helping you make the absolute most of the time you have available. This can make the time you actually spend studying FEEL shorter.

It’s a basic human understanding that the way our brain processes time is not as mathematical as the ticking of a second or minute hand. You know it because of how four hours of studying feels like torture (also a good reason to avoid cramming at all costs) but video games or old sitcom episodes on Netflix can make four hours disappear like some sort of temporal Houdini.

6. So, speed reading: yay or nay?

Green thumbs up and red thumbs down

Oh, the billion-dollar question: is speed reading bad for studying?

The answer is clear: if you’re planning to skim through the latest chapter as fast as possible so you don’t miss two-dollar beer night at O’Hannigan’s, then it's not great for your studying. In other words, that’s a hard nay.

BUT using speed reading as a tool, however, can improve your performance and knowledge while still saving you time in the long run!

Building good strategies for studying, having clear objectives and actions, and always knowing your next step can help compress the feel of your study sessions in much the same way that four thirty-minute episodes of TV can breeze by while a two-hour movie seems endless. Getting a dopamine hit every time you conquer a new objective is gonna keep your brain happily chugging away much more than hurling 40 pages of dense text at it, screaming “READ THIS NOW OR ELSE ...”

Now you can approach that daunting chapter with a battle plan. So rally those neurons, get them firing, and attack that new knowledge with speed and precision.

Want to refine your study strategy even further? See our complete guide on how to study effectively with LESS total effort.