The theater class reading was daunting—two plays in 48 hours: the 130-page “Son of Don Juan” and the 80-page “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” But NYU acting studet Skyler Gallun immediately knew what he would do. “I read half of one of them and the online summary for the other. In class, we barely spoke on the texts at all,” said Gallun, 19, an acting student at New York University, juggling rehearsals, three other classes, and a job.

He’s not the only one taking shortcuts. A University of California Santa Barbara study claims today’s students spend far less time cracking the books than their predecessors in decades past. According to the study, the average full-time student in 1961 spent 40 hours per week on schoolwork. In 2003, undergraduates invested just 27 hours per week.

The exact reason for this precipitous decline in reading remains uncertain. Gallun’s story, however, hints at some common explanations—time-stressed students, online resources, and few consequences.

This trend has not escaped the notice of professors like Mary Hoeft , who has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Barron County in Rice Lake, Wisconsin for the last 35 years, when she noticed this disconcerting trend in her classrooms. Despite her best efforts to get students excited about assigned texts, she estimated only one in four students completed assigned reading.

So Hoeft devised a study to find how often students skipped their reading assignments and why. After surveying students in entry-level English classes, her suspicions were largely confirmed.

“My findings showed that although 46% of students indicated that they had read the assignment, only 55% of those students were able to demonstrate the most basic level of comprehension,” said Hoeft.

Even the 54% who passed Hoeft’s basic comprehension test, though, may not be diligently hitting the books. For many students, skimming the text, or reading a summary online, can often be enough.

“I think most students realize there’s no one definition for what it means to ‘read’ an assignment,” said Cal Newport, 29, author of three books on efficient study habits and the popular blog “Study Hacks.” “There’s a whole spectrum of depth of understanding possible—what’s important is figuring out how to navigate this spectrum,”

On his blog, Newport advocates “The Art of Pseudo-Skimming,” a strategy on how to pick out only the most relevant sections of assigned readings. Following his technique, students will supposedly be “skipping paragraphs at a rapid rate.”

Maybe, however, neither teachers’ testing methods nor students’ will is to blame. Perhaps students today simply learn differently, and their new reading habits reflect that. Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at NYU and author of the book “The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word,” argues that new media may simply be supplanting print.

“If you want to, for example, learn about the Roman Empire, it’s not entirely clear to me that books are a better way of doing it than some of the stuff you can find online.”

In the end, though, where to learn best is often beside the point. For many students, Skyler Gallun’s story has a familiar ending.

“We talked about the two plays for barely ten minutes in class.”