Academic survival tips for students: How to effectively summarize your course literature

As a new university student, you’ll quickly realise how much reading there is to get through as part of your course. In fact, the average student spends up to 20 hours a week reading academic literature as part of their self-directed study. That equates to dozens of journal articles, research papers and book chapters over the course of a semester.

With that amount of reading, it’s hard to remembereverything you’ve read, sogetting into the habit of writing a short summary in your own words after every paper or chapter can be really pay off – especially when it comes to essay-writing or exam prep. 

Checklist

  • What is a summary?
  • Before you start writing your summary
    • Identify your audience (and purpose)
    • Make sure you understand the content
    • Use an online article summarizer
  • While you’re writing your summary
    • Leave your opinions to one side
    • Write about the paper only
    • Use your own words
  • After you’ve written your summary
    • Check your summary corresponds with the article
    • Ask a friend or peer to read over it
  • Conclusion

What is a summary?

Most people know what a summary is, but for academic purposes, there are very specific elements a summary should include. Writing a summary of an academic text doesn’t involve you critiquing or analyzing the source material. Rather, it’s a way for you to clearly and objectivelycapture the key points of the text, including its main ideas, methodology, supporting arguments and results or findings.

Writing your first few summaries might feel like extra effortat first, but by getting into the habit you’ll be reinforcing your understanding of the subject and get more comfortable writing about the literature in your own words. This will really pay off when you start drafting an essay or revising for your exam. Followthese quick tips to get into the flow of summarizing.

Before you start writing your summary

1. Identify your audience (and purpose)

Before you begin, you should clarify why you need to summarize the content. This can help you understand how long the summary needs to be, as well as how best to structure it.

The length of your summary will vary depending on the length of the article or chapter you’re summarizing, but it could range from a couple of sentences to several paragraphs.

If you’re taking notes to remind yourself about the article later on, you’ll probably want to write a slightly longer summary with a bit more detail. If you’re looking to discuss the paper with classmates, you might want to split your summary up into sections that focus on the method, results and primary conclusions – this will make it easier for you examine the content.

2. Reinforce your understanding of the content you’re summarizing

Before you start your summary, you should make sure you have a firm grasp of the main ideas presented in the original text. Don’t only rely on the abstract of an article, as this may only capturesome of the findings or methods and not give you all the detail you need.

It’s best to read the content a few times to reinforce your understanding and help you feel more confident summarizing it in your own words.

One useful way to approach this is to read the content three times. The first time should be a quick skim to get a feel for the general topic and structure. Pay attention to the headings and subheadings, as these will often give you a rough idea of what to expect from each section.

The second read through should be more thorough. You should highlight any points that stand out and take notes (either in the margin or on a separate piece of paper) as you’re reading.

The third and final read should be another quick scan to make sure you’ve identified and understood the key takeaways. You might want to spend some more time re-reading any important or hard-to-understand sections to feel more confident writing them up in your own words.

3. Try using an online text summarizer

Emerging technologies such as AI-powered text summarizer and knowledge extraction tools are ideal for giving you the basis for your own summary. These tools quickly highlight the main points of a research article, book chapter or other document, giving you a useful starting point for writing an appraisal in your own words.

While you’re writing your summary

4. Leave your opinions to one side

As you’re reading a paper or chapter, it can be tempting to critically appraise its method or results. However, this isn’t the goal of a summary. Instead, you should focus on writing a clear and objective summary of the article or chapter’s main points, including its methodology, supporting evidence and arguments.

5. Limit your focus the article or chapter

It might sound obvious but remember that your summary should only focus on the paper or chapter itself. Don’t try to include additional context about the topic or refer to anything that’s not mentioned in the content you’re summarizing.

For example, if you’re condensing an article on the role of economics in climate change policy, you should focus on the main argument of the article and any supporting evidence, rather than including supplementary information about climate change policy that you have picked up somewhere else.

6. Use your own words

When faced with complex terminology or ideas, it can be tempting to use direct quotations to save time unpicking the meaning. However, a summary must be written in your own words to show you understand the main points and help you avoid plagiarism when you start writing your essay or assignment.

Make notes in your own words while you’re reading. If you find yourself struggling to do this, it’s a good indicator that you don’t understand the material well enough and need to invest more time getting to grips with the main ideas and findings.

After you’ve written your summary

7. Check your summary corresponds with the article

When you’ve finished your summary, you should cross-check it with the notes you initially took about the original source. Have you captured the writer’s main points? Are there any repetitive or minor points you can remove so that it’s as concise as possible?

This is also a good opportunity to check that the summary makes sense as a stand-alone piece. The summary should follow a logical structure and be cohesive – one way to do this is to use transition sentences or phrases to link your points together.

8. Ask a friend to read over it

As a final check, you could ask someone in your class to read your summary. It’s useful to have someone who’s familiar with the text, as well as someone unfamiliar with it, to take a look. They’ll be able to offer different perspectives on whether you’ve managed to capture the main points of the original source, and whether it makes sense as a stand-alone summary.

Conclusion

The ability to succinctly summarize a research paper, article or book chapter is a useful skill for all students, regardless of study level. By following thesepointers, you can start to feel more comfortable assimilating your course literature and cementing your understanding of individual topics.

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