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Writing an Effective Summary

Assignment Summary

First Class Activities:

A. Students freewrite/brainstorm their definition of a summary; they write about where and when they might have written or read summaries, what associations they make with the word.

B . During the discussion that follows, the instructor should elicit as much information about the summary as possible, ending with a working definition of a summary, and a list of the significant features of a summary. Students should be made aware that they have already read summaries in their textbooks at the beginning or end of the chapter, on book jackets, and in introductory or concluding material in essays they may have read or written. The instructor should also point out that summary skills are a common academic task, and a common way our brains help us make sense of the ordinary world, encapsulating the day's events or summing up the important details of a movie or book for a friend. The instructor should also make students aware of synonymous or closely related kinds of writing students may be asked to perform; for example, abstract, synopsis, paraphrase, etc. If time permits, a quick analysis of the etymology of the words themselves can help give students a better idea of the task involved. Because students have written a preliminary summary for homework, they'll have questions about what concerned them as they wrote–for example, what tense is a summary written in, how many details should I include, can quotes be used, etc.

C. After the whole class discussion, students should work in small groups writing a collaborative summary using, as a starting point, the individual summaries they completed for homework. The teacher can circulate around the room during this collaborative writing time, answering questions when necessary. The information collected during the class discussion should remain on the board for students to refer to as they write their group summaries. Each group member should sign the group summary before turning it in for credit. Students should be told that the teacher will type up these group summaries for evaluation in the next class period.

D. For homework, the teacher should hand out another article for students to summarize at home on their own. Students should be told that this summary will be peer evaluated during the next class period and then revised and turned in to the instructor. In preparation for the next class , the teacher should type up the group summaries that have been collected and photcopy them to distribute during the next class period. (Generally student names are left off the handout.) The teacher should also prepare another handout listing the features of a standard summary and other points that have come up during the class discussion.

2nd Class:

A. The teacher distributes a handout of the group summaries and the checklist for writing an effective summary based on the class discussion. The teacher briefly goes over the checklist with the students. Working in small groups, students will analyze each group summary using the checklist, and pick the best one. After the small groups have had a chance to pick their "winners," a large group discussion takes place analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each group summary.

B. After the discussion on the effectiveness of the group summaries takes place, students should be allowed to evaluate the individual summaries they wrote for homework and revise where necessary according to their growing understanding of the features of a good summary and by using the checklist the teacher has distributed. Students might evaluate their own summaries or exchange their summaries in pairs or small groups. Depending on the time remaining, students might be asked to turn in their revised summaries at the end of the period or to finish revising at home for collection during the next class.

C. Follow-up activities: Instructors might hand out copies of summaries written in other academic disciplines or ask students to find examples of summaries/abstracts to bring in to class as part of these exercises. If students are required to write a research paper for the course, the ideal segue would be to have students read and write summaries of articles to be used in their research paper. Another possible culminating activity might be to have students summarize another text as a preliminary activity for writing the analysis.

Instructor's Comments

Many teachers assume that summarizing a text is a relatively easy task, but writing a summary actually involves a number of complex abilities. Students must thoroughly understand a text, particularly the relationship of ideas in a text, and they must be able to paraphrase those ideas and present them accurately and objectively for a reader who may be unfamiliar with the text. Although often used as a preliminary to writing an analysis, writing an effective summary actually requires that students understand not just what the ideas are but the way they work together. Writing a summary also requires that students distinguish between their subjective reaction to a text and the objective representation of another's ideas without distortion as far as humanly possible. Still, as a precursor to writing a formal analysis, emphasizing what an effective summary requires can be an invaluable way to show students the important difference between reporting the "what" of a text and examining the "why" and "how" of an author's text that is a requirement of effective analysis. By moving students back and forth between individual work and group work, the student begins to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to write an effective summary.


genre summary and response
course WRT 101
activity type small group discussion, collaborative writing, class discussion
skills analysis, abstraction, close reading, summarizing, reflection
duration 1-3 classes
copies of summaries written in other academic disciplines (optional)
handouts: none
contributor: Clare A. Frost