Improve Student Comprehension through Summarizing Assignments

One of the fundamental causes of poor student performance is not knowing how to read academic work. They read for facts rather than underlying themes. It has been proven that the best note-taking method is one that forces active reading by having readers summarize positions and “argument turns” in their own words.

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If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.

—Albert Einstein 

One of the fundamental causes of poor student performance is not knowing how to read academic work. They read for facts rather than underlying themes. It has been proven that the best note-taking method is one that forces active reading by having readers summarize positions and “argument turns” in their own words. This is how faculty themselves take notes when reading articles. But students do not know they should be doing that. Not only does summarizing capture more pertinent information, it also gives them practice with synthesizing ideas, which is a central skill in critical thinking.

Guideswende Rouamba, instructional design technology specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, works with faculty on an assignment that helps teach how to summarize positions. Students are first given a text to read, and then told to write the author's position and argument in their own words. An instructor can also force students to bore down into more detail by requiring them to paraphrase certain particularly difficult passages.

After coming up with their own summaries, the students are put in groups and told to post their versions to a common site for all group members to see. Then they are told to discuss the different versions and come to a consensus on a group version that they will hand in. It can be helpful for the instructor, or group, to appoint a leader who will put pen to paper to write out at least a draft of the common version based on the discussion. Students can then edit it as much as they would like during the discussion. To avoid freeloading, instructors can require all students to make comments on the different versions. Plus, each student's original version is preserved to make sure that they at least submitted something at the beginning.

This group discussion format has been used successfully by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur. After explaining a concept to the class, he has his students explain it to one another in groups of two. He found that often only half the students understood the concept originally, but after discussing it with a neighbor, most understood it. “The 50 percent who had the right answer effectively convinced the other 50 percent,” he says. 

Professor Mazer believes that students can often explain a concept to a fellow student better than he can because of “the expert's blind spot”—the inability of experts to understand the trouble of novices. Students explain the concept in terms that a novice can understand because both are novices. 

In the courses at Nebraska, once the group reaches agreement on the summary, they post it for review. The instructor then provides feedback on that version. The instructor can also look at the individual students' versions to see where they are having trouble. It can be interesting to see the variety of original versions. By taking a peek at a student's original understanding of a text prior to the completion of an assignment, the instructor sees the thinking of the student and where that thinking goes wrong. The exercise helps an instructor identify standard mistakes that students make in reading and understanding work, and from that create course content for students that discuss these mistakes and how to avoid them. In this way the instructor is heading off problems at the pass, rather than just seeing their outcomes in students' final work.

The ideal way to facilitate the group work is through a shared editing system. Perhaps the best such system is Google Drive. Each group can create an account and provide the instructor with access. Students then contribute their original version, as well as edit the final version, while the instructor monitors progress and uses the comment feature to provide feedback. 

Another option is to use a wiki-like platform. Many learning management systems now come with a wiki feature that allows for student editing. There are also a variety of good, free wiki systems. PBWorks is an easy way to use wiki, while Padlet provides a visually appealing way to present information, and Blendspace offers a premium version free to teachers that includes a host of functions, including collaboration between teachers and classes.

Synthesizing and paraphrasing assignments can be a powerful way to increase learning and improve study skills. Consider adding it to your teaching repertoire. 

Reference

Hanford, E. (2013). Rethinking the way college students are taught. American Public Media, retrieved from http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/lectures/rethinking-teaching.html.