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One Skill that Every Student Should Learn for Higher Productivity: Summarization

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When I was a student, one skill immensely benefited me, which a prep school taught me through repetition during my elementary years. This skill was summarization, the ability to review the material learned in class, condense it into a concise and easily understandable format, and put it on paper. I utilized this skill throughout high school and university, significantly simplifying my learning process. It helped me maintain high marks in school and I still use it to simply my work today.

Summarization skill is an essential component of every student’s learning toolbox. It involves the process of taking a large amount of information and distilling it down to its most important points. By honing the ability to summarize, students become better learners, critical thinkers, and effective communicators – skills that extend far beyond the classroom. In this article, we’ll explore the importance of summarization skills for students, how it benefits their academic and professional journeys, and research-backed strategies for developing these abilities.

What Is Summarization?

A teen girl reading a book and taking a summary.

Summarization is a crucial skill that students utilize when studying or reviewing various subjects. It involves distilling complex information, be it from textbooks, lectures, or other resources, into concise, simplified and relevant points. The primary goal of summarization is to facilitate better comprehension and retention of the subject matter. For students, mastering the art of summarizing can significantly enhance their ability to understand and recall important concepts, ultimately leading to better academic performance.

Students typically create summaries of their notes or study materials. This process allows them to filter out redundant or less significant information, and focus on the core ideas and arguments presented. Summarizing entails identifying the main points, supporting details, and potential applications of the subject matter. It requires critical thinking and analytical skills, as well as the ability to synthesize information from multiple sources. Summarization can involve making summary notes, “cheat sheats”, flashcards, and outlines (more below).

How To Make A Good Summary For Reviewing

A person writing notes

Successful summarization techniques are essential for students to effectively digest and retain information received through class lessons, self-study materials, reading assignments, and more. Effective summarization involves several key components that enable students to maximize their learning and efficiently review the material in the future. Try to following these 4 steps:

1. Critically reading and reviewing the information: To begin summarizing, students must first acquire a thorough understanding of the content by actively reading or engaging with it. This involves reading with a critical eye, asking questions, looking for connections and patterns, and considering the relevance of the information. The important thing is to actively read the material and try to understand what’s going on. Through this process, the student should find out what he or she doesn’t understand and ask questions or do further research.

2. Analyzing the relationships and importance of various pieces of information: Next, students must consider how different ideas or data points relate to one another and identify the most crucial aspects of the material. Understanding the connections between different pieces of information aids in condensing and prioritizing the content, resulting in a more effective summary. By going through this process, the student is exercising critical examination of the information, which is much more effective than passively reading the material.

3. Condensing information and choosing the most suitable format: After determining the most relevant information, students must compactly convey the content using concise language and simplified language on their notebook. A well-organized summary note may incorporate bullet points, diagrams, tables, or other visual tools, depending on the type of information being summarized. For example, bullet points are suitable for listing key ideas or steps in a process, while diagrams may better represent complex concepts or relationships. By using these different formats, students can create summaries that are both comprehensive and easy to navigate. This is also when the student is practicing some creativity in expressing the ideas he or she learned in school.

4. Reading back the summary: Finally, students should review their summary to ensure that it accurately represents the original material and effectively portrays the central ideas. As they read back, they may find further points that require clarification or more points or comments that they want to add to their summary note. This enriches the summary and truly make it their own.

How To Make A Good Summary When Reading A Textbook

High angle portrait view of a very busy young brunette multiracial student sitting at the table and writing something at the notebook

Reading textbooks is an essential activity for all students. In school, students are frequently assigned reading tasks, which may include textbooks, newspaper articles, or books. Many students struggle to read and comprehend lengthy passages in textbooks, particularly those with weak literacy skills or learning disabilities. It has been demonstrated that summarization can improve reading comprehension when students read a text and summarize its contents.

Use the following technique to make a summary as you read the textbook:

  • Work on one paragraph at a time: Read one paragraph, and use the following technique to make a summary of that paragraph.
  • Read through the entire paragraph thoroughly: First, read through the whole paragraph, taking a quick mental note of key points, words, or phrases that seem to encapsulate the central themes being explored. Use a highlighter or underline the important part. Pay attention to the introduction sentence (the first sentence) and the conclusion sentence (the last sentence) as these places often contain key information.
  • Then, identify the main theme: After reading the paragraph, read back and try to identify the author’s thesis or main argument as this often serves as the foundation for the passage. In your summary, down the main points. For students struggling to understand the textbook, use the Rule of Two: write down the most important point using 2 sentences only.
  • Finally, find supporting arguments: After you identify and write down the main points, look for and extract supporting points and evidence that the author employs to reinforce their thesis, paying particular attention to any examples, analogies, or logical reasoning presented. Write them into your summary to strengthen the main points.
  • Final summary: The final summary should now include the core argument (a couple of sentences or bullet points) along with critical supporting points that help elucidate the author’s stance on the subject matter.

Characteristics of A Good Summary

A good summary also involves the following characteristics:

  • Uses students’ own words: A good summary is not just repetition or copy of the teacher’s presentation or class notes. Students should use their own words and own way of writing down the information.
  • Concise: A good summary is concise and easy to read. The whole point of summarization is to make a summary, not producing another textbook. Concise summary is easier to review. For example, after reading 20 pages of textbook, a student may summarize it in 4 pages. Reviewing 20 pages of textbook is hard and time-consuming, but reviewing 4 pages of summary note is doable.
  • Comprehensive: Concise summary doesn’t mean that important information is lost. Everything that a student should know should be contained in the summary. If a student learned trigonometric ratios in school, just writing down “I learned trigonometric ratios” is not a summary.
  • Neat and easy to read: A good summary is easy to read. It uses techniques like point form, bullet points listing, diagrams, and outlines to make a large amount of discrete information easier to read. This is important when a student has to use the summary to review for a test.

The Importance of Summarization Skills for Students

While students often perceive summarization as a tedious activity, it has been recognized by researchers and educators as a critical aspect of the learning process. The ability to summarize reflects a depth of understanding and mastery of a subject, significantly impacting students’ academic performance and life outcomes. Summarization skills present several advantages for students, including:

  • Enhanced comprehension: By breaking down complex ideas into simpler components, summarization allows students to understand the key points of a topic better. One study found that students with learning disability significantly increased their reading comprehension after teaching how to summarize and asked to summarize their reading.
  • Improved retention: When students summarize information, they are more likely to remember the content in the long run. One study found that sixth grade students who underwent summarization training program increased their ability to recall major information during reading. The authors concluded that summarization training is an effective tool for improving study skills.
  • Ease of review: Because summarization condenses a large amount of information to a few pages of notes, it’s much easier to review the summary than to review the large amount of text. For example, a student spends less time reviewing 4 pages of their own summary note than 20 pages of textbook reading.
  • Acquisition of critical thinking: Summarizing fosters the development of critical thinking, as students must evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information. In one study, a group of Iranian EFL (English-as-a-Foreign-Language) students were asked to use summarization to evaluate the author’s argument. This group of students showed higher results when answering reading comprehension questions compared to students who didn’t use summarization.
  • Effective communication: Being able to summarize information concisely and coherently helps students become better communicators as they understand the text, critically evaluate the text, and practiced expressing the information in their own way.

The Kind of Summary Notes Students Can Take

The simplest type of summary a student can create is a summary note. This consists of handwritten or typed notes that a student takes after reading a textbook, reviewing their class notes, or going over lecture notes, among other things. However, there are other variations a student can explore, which are listed below. Students can also utilize a combination of these strategies for greater effectiveness.

Simple Summary Note

A simple summary note encompasses a summary of a reading, class notes, a teacher’s PowerPoint presentation, among other things. Despite its simplicity, it serves as an effective tool in helping students review, reflect on, synthesize, and organize ideas using their own words. A summary note may contain important points, supporting points or evidence, and additional notes to aid student’s understanding (if needed). A student can use bullet points, point forms, diagrams and pictures to help them organize information.

Simple summary note example

Cheat Sheets

A cheat sheet is a highly condensed summary of an entire topic. Typically, a student reviews the materials they need to study and consolidates all the information required for a test into one or two pages. It is called a cheat sheet because it resembles a sheet that a student might bring to a test to cheat, although they cannot actually do so in reality. To create a cheat sheet, one would compile all the necessary information onto a single page or both sides of one page. Due to the limited space, the student must carefully consider how to organize the information. As the cheat sheet must include all pertinent information and not just the main points, it also serves as an excellent review tool for students.

Vim cheat sheet - computer science

(An example of cheat sheet in computer science class. You can also handwrite it. Photo curtesy of InstallGentoo Wiki.)

Graphic Organizer

A graphic organizer is a visual tool that helps students organize, classify, and represent information in a structured manner. It usually comes in the form of charts, mind maps, diagrams, or flowcharts and aids in breaking down complex concepts and ideas into smaller, manageable pieces. When it comes to summarizing what a student has learned, a graphic organizer can be incredibly useful as it enables them to systematically arrange the key points and main ideas, making the learning process more efficient and comprehensible. As students evaluate and synthesize the acquired knowledge, they are able to better understand the connections between the different aspects of the subject matter. Consequently, a graphic organizer not only facilitates a more clear and concise summary of the students’ learnings but also helps in promoting critical thinking, boosting retention, and enhancing overall comprehension of the material.

A graphic organizer is suited in studying complex topics such as physics and biology. It comes in handy when a student has to understand and memorize complex set of interrelated facts such as the processes in cellular respiration, to give an example.

An example of mind map (cosmological argument)

(An example of mind map showing related information organized in colored branches. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cosmological_Argument_Mind_Map.png)


Flashcards are an effective learning tool that allow students to actively engage with the material they’ve studied by providing them with a concise summary of crucial information. They are typically small cards with a question or term on one side and the answer or definition on the other. The primary function of flashcards is to facilitate quick recall and strengthen knowledge retention, enabling students to test their understanding of key concepts, vocabulary, formulas, or other pertinent information. By offering a clear, focused perspective on important topics studied, flashcards empower students to monitor their progress and solidify their comprehension. They are a compact and convenient method of reinforcing subject matter, and easy and fun to make.

Index cards

(Index cards are great for making flash cards. An index card holds a good amount of area, so it can hold some information. You can write a question on one side and its answer on the other side for self-testing purposes. Or, you can draw a diagram on one side and write its description on the other side.)

Developing Summarization Skills: Strategies for Students

Students can enhance their summarization skills with consistent practice and familiarity with effective strategies. Here are some proven methods that can be integrated into a student’s learning routine:

  • Practicing note-taking: Taking notes during lectures or while reading demands students to filter through the information and jot down the main ideas, which naturally helps in developing summarization skills.
  • Be comfortable in using visual tools: Visual tools, such as mind maps, concept maps, or flowcharts, can assist students in organizing and summarizing information for better comprehension and recall.
  • Applying the “Rule of Two”: Encourage students to summarize any new material or concept they encounter in their own words and then condense it into a simplified version with just two key points.
  • Make it into a routine: Make summarization a routine part of studying. Having a routine is shown to give a sense of stability and increase focus on the task.
  • Revisiting and summarizing previous lessons: Regularly revisiting past lessons and summarizing the key points aids in retention and helps identify any gaps in understanding.

Conclusion: The Power of Summarization Skills for Life-Long Success

Summarization skills are indispensable for students to excel in their academic pursuits and beyond. These abilities not only enhance comprehension, retention, and critical thinking but also have a lasting impact on students’ communication skills – a cornerstone of success in any professional field. By incorporating research-based strategies into their learning routine and acknowledging the value of summarization skills, students can pave the way for a prosperous and fulfilling academic and professional journey.

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