Summarising is taking a large block of text or a large number of ideas and cutting it down to the most important points. It’s the skill of understanding what you’ve just read and picking out the relevant points. It can be used to help initial learning of the material or as a revision technique.

Summarising can help with organisational processing as you are structure the material in your mind before writing it down. It also facilitates extraction of meaning (a useful skill) because you are engaging and thinking about the material, taking out the relevant points.

But is there evidence supporting its efficacy? Bednall & Kehoe (2011) found that there was a significant correlation between the quality of the summarisation (number of correct definitions and the number of links to prior knowledge) and their scores on subsequent tests. However, summarisation had no significant effect on students scores compared to a control condition and participants in this condition scored significantly lower than explanation (participants were asked to write a paragraph explaining the information) and explanation+summarisation.

Bretzing & Kulhavy (1979) divided participants into groups, two of which were participants wrote 3 sentence summarises  of different pages of a book (either whilst they were reading or at the end of the page). They found these groups performed better on a test about the information than those who wrote out 3 verbatim sentences or just read it. These results were seen a week later in a delayed test. The study had low power as it only had 18 participants per cell. Despite it’s lower power, it is further evidence suggesting that writing about the text in your own words has greater benefit than just copying out the text (as you are actively considering the text and understanding it).

Summarisation appears to be most effective for those who already know how to do it, so it’s efficacy for younger students may be limited. However, there have been studies that show when younger students are taught how to summarise properly then it can have a positive impact on later tests (Armbruster, Anderson & Ostertag, 1986; Nelson, Smith & Dodd, 1992).

However, Annis (1985) found that summarisation didn’t have an effect on recall when asked basic comprehension questions about a passage they had read. Not only did summarisation not have a positive effect on comprehension of the text, it actually had a negative impact on student’s ability to answer questions involving evaluation and synthesis of the information.

Overall, it would appear that summarisation is a useful learning tool for those who already know how to use it effectively. Proper summarisation techniques can be taught to those who do not know how to do it but I think their time would be better spent using more effective learning techniques e.g. active retrieval, than learning a new technique that is only moderately effective.

Annis, L.F. (1985). Student-generated Paragraph Summaries and the Information Processing-theory of Prose Learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 51, 4-10.
Armbruster, B.B.; Anderson, T.H. & Ostertag, J. (1987). Does text structure/summarisation instruction facilitate learning from expository text? Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 33-346.
Bednall, T.C. & Kelhoe, E.J. (2011). Effects of self-regulatory instructional aids on self-directed learning. Instructional Science, 39, 205-226.
Bretzing, B.H. & Kulhavy, R.W. (1979). Notetaking and depth of processing. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4 (1),145-153.
Dunlosky, J.; Rawson, K.; Marsh, E.; Nathan, M. & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 14 (1), 4-58.
Nelson, J.R.; Smith, D.J. & Dodd, J.M. (1992). The effects of teaching a summary skills strategy to students identified as learning disabled on their comprehension of science text. Education and Treatment of Children, 15, (3), 228-243. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);

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