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Use summaries to better understand difficult academic texts
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On Monday morning my co-worker asked me about my weekend, as he always does. I replied, “I went to a friend’s place for a party.”
That was it. My whole weekend in just nine words.
Nothing could be more normal, but why didn’t I begin by recounting what happened when I woke up on Saturday morning? Why didn’t I say that I got up, made a cup of coffee, read some news articles, showered, brushed my teeth, etc., etc. on up to the party I went to in the evening?
Well, this would have bored my colleague to death and he would have probably muttered something about emails and quickly dashed off to his desk. All of my everyday activities wouldn’t have been of interest to him, so I gave him a summary of my weekend. In other words, I shared only the information most relevant to him and left out unnecessary details.
This example shows that summarizing is a skill we do intuitively all the time. When you describe the movie you saw last night to someone, you summarize it. When a friend tells you about their their vacation, they only include the highlights.
Summaries aren’t only important in everyday conversation, they’re used in all communication mediums and in all walks of life. Elevator pitches, infographics, abstracts, legal briefs, topic sentences, key takeaways – all of these can be thought of as summaries.
Funny, then, that a skill that is so intuitive and used so often suddenly can seem difficult when you’re forced to do it in an academic context. A summary of the arguments presented in a scholarly journal article, for example, can seem daunting.
What is a summary, exactly?
The key components of a summary are that you’ve condensed an event, a text, or an idea down to either its main ideas or what’s most relevant about it for a particular audience.
When you summarize an academic text for yourself or others, your goal should be to try to succinctly and accurately restate the main ideas and details of it in your own words, while leaving out anything that is not essential to understanding the text as a whole. Basically, you pick out the main points and leave out anything that’s not important.
It sounds easy, but since academic texts can contain a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and convoluted writing, it sometimes can be a struggle to figure out what exactly the author is getting at.
Why is it necessary to summarize academic texts?
Although it can be difficult to identify the most important ideas in a scholarly article, it’s a necessary prerequisite for writing a research paper. You can think of summaries as a bridge between your reading and your writing. To analyze a text in your writing you must first have understood it, and to have understood it, it must be clear to you from your reading what the main points are. What is the article about? What key findings does it present? Who were the study participants and why were they chosen? This identification of the main points is an act of summarizing.
For most people, this act of summarizing takes place unconsciously, but there are benefits to taking a more active approach to summarizing. For example, if you make a conscious effort to summarize a journal article as you read it, you can check that you’ve actually understood it. In dense academic texts, it’s all too easy to let your mind drift and suddenly realize you haven’t actually “read” anything on the last page or two. If you find this happening to you often, make it a habit to look up from the text, and try to restate the main ideas of the last section out loud or in your head. If you cannot do so, you likely did not understand it and should go back and re-read the section.
For important texts that you will need to be familiar with for a test, you may want to write out your summary. Then, you can also refer to these key points later on instead of having to reread the article in detail.
The act of summarizing, regardless of whether it’s out loud, on paper, or in your head, has the added benefit of helping you remember what you read. There are a few reasons for this. For one, you force yourself to actively engage with the text rather than passively absorbing it. For another, our brains are not good at remembering a lot of complex new information at once. Studies have shown that we can only hold three to five pieces of information in working memory at any given time. So, when you boil an entire article down to a few sentences, it’s more likely that you will remember its main points.
How can you get better at summarizing difficult texts?
The simple answer is… practice! Although writing out a summary takes time, once you get used to actievely summarizing what you read, you’ll be able to do it automatically in your head while you read. At the beginning, it can also be good to compare your summaries with a friend. For example, if you have to read an article for class, compare your summaries or discuss what you think the main points are with a classmate.
An added advantage of getting better at summaries: Being able to summarize well will also help you write better, since you’ll be able to better discern whether or not the main points in your own writing are coming across.
Saving summaries in your reference management program
If you’re working on a longer research paper and are already using a reference management program to keep track of your sources, it can make sense to save your summaries there. This way, you won’t have to reread your texts later on, if you ever have to refer back to them.
Nearly all reference management programs will have a notes field where you can save summaries and other notes. If you want to be especially organized, Citavi has a dedicated “Summary” knowledge item. To use it, you can highlight a text passage, enter a core statement (a summary sentence for your summary, if you will) and then enter the main points and details for the passage. You can then easily distinguish your summaries from direct quotations, indirect quotations, comments, and your own ideas. You can learn more about these options in our PDF guide to annotation in Citavi.
We hope this article will inspire you to start using summaries as a technique for improving your reading comprehension! What strategies do you have for better understanding difficult academic texts? We'd love to hear from you on Facebook.