Skimming your way to Paperless Nirvana

Marlene recently recommended Skim a great free PDF reader. But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg—Skim is a wonderful tool to bring you one step closer to naperless nirvana.

Creating paperless nirvana

First, some details on paperless Nirvana. I hate paper. I hate collecting stacks of assignments from students and having to mark them by hand, returning them, and then having no copy of what I wrote on those assignments when I need to go back and write comments, or try to reflect globally on how to revise the assignment. The solution I’ve found is the copiers around campus and their wonderful scan-to-email abilities. You can easily take a giant stack of student assignments, feed them to the copier in the copy center (which scans double sided in a single pass), and have them sitting as a PDF in your inbox before you can get back from getting a cup of coffee from the faculty lounge. I did this for almost every assignment this year, and the value of being able to go back and reflect on old student work was tremendous. As an extra perk, I created some filters to forward those scans (and only those scans) to a special gmail account I created to hold all my scans of student work, and this served as a great archive to store these documents. If there’s interest, I can write an explanation of this sometime in the future.

This year, I’m thinking about how to go one step further—Often, it’s hard for me to cram the comments I want to write into the tiny spaces between student work, and we all know that students, with all the paper they have to keep up with, often tend to lose things. So I’m starting to think—is there a way to leverage technology to go even further with allowing me to grade these scans, and email them to students, but still allow for assignments that have students solving problems on paper (something I still think is important, and haven’t found a good electronic substitute for).

Enter Skim, and the beauty of PDF comments. In case you didn’t know, PDF stands for Portable Document Format, which is an open standard for creating electronic documents that are small, secure and easily sharable. Sharing PDF documents is much preferable to things like word documents, since nearly everyone has or can use free viewers to view PDFs, often right in the browser. PDFs embed fonts and images, so that if you create a document with a particular look, you can be sure that your recipient is going to see it that way, rather than a “could not locate font message”, and as a small side benefit PDFs are much less vulnerable to viruses, and other problems that plague other document formats.

PDF also supports comments fairly robustly. You can see this in Preview if you activate the reviewing tools (selecting View > Show Annotations Toolbar will bring up a menu of possible annotations along the bottom). Problem is, in Preview, these tools are a bit unwieldy and a pain to use. Adobe acrobat, a very powerful application can do millions of things to PDFs, including annotation and redaction, but it’s a giant app and overkill for reading and commenting on a single PDF.

Installing Skim and making it the default application for PDFs

Enter Skim—a super fast, super powerful PDF reader that makes commenting a breeze. But in order to realize it’s complete power, you need to make it your default PDF reader. Here’s how you do this.

  1. Download and install Skim from the developer’s website
  2. Find a PDF document in the finder and select it (don’t open it)
  3. Get info on the PDF (File > Get info or simply ⌘+I. This will bring up a tall, thin window with lots of information about the document).
  4. Find the section of the window titled “Open with” Click the popup box and select Skim (you may need to select Other at the bottom and find the app in your applications folder).
  5. Press the “Change All” button right below the PDF document. You will get a confirmation window, where you should select “Continue.” This will make Skim the default application to open all PDF documents.

Need a bit more help with this? Here’s a short screencast I created to show you how (you can also click on the fullscreen icon to the left of “Vimeo” to make it fullscreen).

Note you could easily follow this same procedure to change the default application for any other type of document (e.g. you could make all word documents open in pages, or all mp4s open in VLC).

Using Skim

Now the fun begins. Open a PDF document. Notice that your reviewing tools are right in the top toolbar, and you can also access them via keyboard shortcut.

In case you don’t recognize the symbols, here’s a little legend:
Command Key: ⌘
Option Key: ⌥
Control Key: ⌃
Shift Key: ⇧

So a new box would be created by holding down the Control + Command + C keys.

Skim also makes it easy to merge/separate PDFs—-just drag pages from another pdf to the pdf you want to merge, or drag pages from a pdf you want to extract. It also has a very nice full screen reading mode that will let you your your students read distraction free.

Important cavaet: Annotation isn’t universally supported in all PDF readers, so if you create notes in the PDF in Skim, there’s a good chance that users not reading it in Skim won’t be able to read it. Moral of the story—if you use this to grade/give feedback, make sure your students are using skim.

There are a number of other awesome apps out there for managing pdfs, including evernote (which can recognize the text, even handwritten text, in PDFs), yojimbo (a sort of digital shoebox for organizing notes and documets), and papers (a app originally designed to manage large libraries of scholarly papers, that does a wonderful job organizing pdfs).


About John Burk

The ramblings of a physics teacher.
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9 Responses to Skimming your way to Paperless Nirvana

  1. John – sounds great! So, in a nutshell, Skim will present me with an interface that allows me to ‘electronically scribble’ and annotate, all over any PDF?

    • John Burk says:

      Yep-the one caveat is that for someone else to read the annotations, they’ll need skim too, but I’ve requested that Skim be a part of the student image, so that should mean all students will be able to read the annotations.

  2. Scott says:


    I must admit that I skimmed the article (no pun intended) but wanted to point out that there are those of us out there who DO enjoy getting paper assignments for a multiple of reasons. Nothing wrong with an occasional assignment via some form of paperless, but there is also times where I still enjoy (and need) to have paper in front of me.

    • John Burk says:

      Yes—I’m one of those people who still gives out many assignments on paper. The point of the article is actually to describe how I keep giving paper assignments, but am able to keep a record of them by scanning them and annotating them online.

    • I think I might grade in the normal fashion (pen and paper), and then scan for future reference. That would NOT be a Skim application, but it would be nice to have a permanent record of assignments,

  3. dobbsep says:

    I just started using Skim while at Klingenstein so that I could read my assignments on my computer, take notes on them, and have them for later. I LOVE this tool, and I think that this might be a great way for our students to learn and practice annotation of online texts they read/edit as well.

  4. I tried using this a bit today, and although I REALLY like the idea of going paperless and working with Skim, writing comments and grading with a red pen directly on the paper is MUCH, MUCH quicker and more intuitive.

  5. Here is a YouTube video that shows SKIM in action. I found it a good tutorial as follow-up to John’s clear introduction.

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