Introduction to the ‘Summary writing’ series

This article is the first in a short series of three illustrating the process of writing effective summaries. The context of the series is a 14-week undergraduate EAP in-sessional programme at Abdullah Gul University, Turkey where students have to develop a 3,000-word research report. As a central component of the report, students are required to write a literature review of approximately 1,200 words based on a summary of a minimum of 10 academic texts.

While the theme changes each semester, all remain related to issues of personal development such as project planning and planning fallacies, effective time management in a cross-cultural context, the development of personality, and communication in a cross-cultural context. The examples and materials presented in this series are taken from the theme of ‘The influence of culture on the development of national characteristics’, as this theme will be accessible to readers, while removing any need for detailed explanation of the content.

More specifically, the three articles in this series focus on the graded task of developing a research proposal based on three annotated summaries of academic texts that support the research proposal thesis statement position.

Finally, the organisation of all three articles is based around common questions asked by students throughout the process of learning to write an effective summary in relation to completing the assignment task.

The title of the two subsequent articles in the series is listed below:

Stage 2: Identifying key information in academic texts and effective note-making

Stage 3: The process of writing, polishing and proofreading summaries

“A summary is an abridgement, or shortened version of the original text, which accurately reports the main arguments and evidence provided by the author(s) in reported speech”

1. What is the importance of being able to write an effective summary?

All learning experiences in faculty departments are centred on the critical reading of various texts as illustrated in Figure 1. Even higher intellectual skills, such as imaginative, creative, critical and innovative thinking, are founded in the challenges presented by educators that are ultimately rooted in guided selective reading. Indeed, while the philosopher René Descartes (1641) claimed to locate the foundational truth for knowledge in his widely know aphorism, Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), for we teachers and our students, it is more appropriate to proclaim that, I read, therefore I think.

Consequently, students are constantly required to critically read and summarise a range of texts in order to complete assignments and to participate actively in all learning encounters. However, it is important to note that writing effective summaries must be set in some specific context, as the focus and content required in a summary will differ significantly depending on the purpose of any particular assigned task.

Figure 1. The central focus of critical reading in all faculty activities (created by R. A. Edwards)

2. What is a summary?

A summary is an abridgement, or shortened version of the original text, which accurately reports the main arguments and evidence provided by the author(s) in reported speech. In other words, a summary is a distillation of the essential claims made in the text, or of selected sections of the text, and must adhere to the following conventions:

  1. Be shorter than the original text
  2. Contain the main arguments in the text that connect directly to the assigned task
  3. Not include any opinions, evaluation or information from outside the text
  4. Be written in reported speech
  5. Be written in academic style
  6. Not include quotations
  7. Include a reported in-text citation of the original source
  8. Include a reference of the text in an appropriate format

3. What is the difference between a summary, a paraphrase and a critique?

1) A paraphrase

A paraphrase attempts to express the same ideas as the original text, or an aspect of the text, in different vocabulary, word order and synonyms. In addition, a successful paraphrase achieves nearly the same meaning and is about the same length as the original text, although the inclusion of synonyms will inevitably result in slightly different shades of meaning from the original text. However, it is important to note that writing an accurate paraphrase is a daunting challenge even for an educated native speaker of the language. Therefore, students should be strongly advised not to attempt to paraphrase more than a maximum of two or three sentences. Attempts to paraphrase entire paragraphs, or sections of an academic text, will almost certainly drift towards plagiarism, as the basic language and organisation of the argument will largely remain that of the original author(s).

2) A critique

A critique analyses and evaluates some or all of the arguments, issues and evidence included in a text. A successful critique offers new perspectives on some or all of the material in the original text by introducing new information from outside of the original text. A critique can be shorter or longer than the original text. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. A graphic representation of the differences between summaries, paraphrases and interpretations (adapted from Newfields, 2001 : 1)

4. What are the initial research steps prior to the writing of the summaries?

Step 1: Analyse the task and develop a project plan

As an essential step in the process of writing the research report, the task used as a framework for this short series of articles involves writing the final research proposal based around the three annotated summaries of academic texts that relate directly to the report thesis statement position. The research proposal template is shown in Figure 3 along with the basic criteria to be followed in the annotated summaries in Table 1.

Figure 3. The research proposal template

 

Table 1

Step 2: Brainstorming the theme and identifying a possible research subject

An approach to brainstorming the theme to identify a possible research subject is illustrated in Figure 4 in relation to the course title of ‘The influence of culture on the development of national characteristics’. For this article, the example selected for further development is the issue of culture and critical thinking. Moreover, at this stage, students are first taught a range of brainstorming techniques such as spidergrams, mind maps and concept diagrams.

Figure 4. An example of brainstorming the theme

“A paraphrase attempts to express the same ideas as the original text, or an aspect of the text, in different vocabulary, word order and synonyms.”

Step 3: Break down the subject into sub-concepts to narrow down the research

Prior to commencing research on the chosen subject, it is important that students are taught how to break down the subject into sub-concepts, which can be used to narrow down the focus when later researching materials online. One illustration based on brainstorming the selected example subject of critical thinking is shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. An example of a basic brainstormed spidergram

Step 4: Search for a possible research question

It is important in this step to make very clear to students that, while a possible research subject can be initially established through creative brainstorming, a potential research question cannot be cobbled together in the imagination, but instead has to be identified in some initial reading. It is also important at this early stage not to rush towards academic texts, especially using academic search engines such as Google Scholar, as this can lead to students becoming overwhelmed by numerous texts and complex arguments. Therefore, at this stage, students should first research the subject, filtered later by the addition of the sub-concepts, by skimming non-academic texts online to gain the big picture in relation to their subject, while searching for an interesting issue that could form the basis of a research question.

Step 5: Research the issue

Once an interesting research issue has been identified, the students then need to research the issue again, making sure that they keep a record of the sources and the names of any academics working in the area of the possible research issue. At this stage, students can add ‘pdf articles’ together with the issue in the search bar, as this will show more academic texts. However, at this early stage, the students should be shown how to just skim the Abstracts to identify what research, if any, has been conducted on their chosen issue.

Step 6: Try, try and try again

During the initial research process shown above, it should be stressed to the students that they must not become fixated with any subject. If they are unable to find an interesting and manageable issue for research on one subject, change the subject, break the subject down again into sub-concepts and start again.

5. What should I do to write an initial research question?

Once students have identified a possible research issue together with some supporting texts, the initial research question can be constructed.

The key components of an assignment question

A well-structured assignment question for either reports or essays should include five elements of the Theme code + Subject code + Theory code + Question code + Context, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Writing the initial research question

6. What do I need to do next to narrow down the research on the question?

The next step is primarily conducted during small group tutorials. Here, students are guided through a process of critically analysing each element of their initial research question, as illustrated in the example in Figure 7.
More detail regarding the process of analysing assignment questions is illustrated in a previous MET article on critical thinking written by Edwards (2013). Students then use the questions generated during the analysis to set an agenda for further research into their subject that significantly assists the process of narrowing down the issues and polishing the research question.

Figure 7. A critical analysis of an initial research question

“Once an interesting research issue has been identified, the students then need to research the issue again, making sure that they keep a record of the sources and the names of any academics working in the area of the possible research issue.”

7. What is the next step in the process?

In the next phase of the process, which will form the content of the second article in the series, students will be taught how to identify key information in academic texts, how to apply critical reading skills to generate questions in relation to the arguments and evidence in texts, and an effective method of note-making for the summaries. Students will also be taught how to design a thesis statement based on the arguments and evidence they acquire during the critical reading of the texts. Finally, students will be introduced to the key elements of an effective annotated summary in the form of simple dos and don’ts based on example summaries.

Conclusion

The three main learning outcomes stressed in this initial article are, first, that an ability to summarise texts accurately and effectively is an essential core skill for university students. Next, the specific content required in a summary is dependent on the particular assignment task in which the summarising is set. Finally, the writing of summaries is part of a process required to complete a particular learning experience, not a stand-alone event.

References

Edwards RA (2013) Critical thinking skills in the process of academic writing. Modern English Teacher 22 (1) 5–10.

Newfields T (2001) Teaching summarizing skills: Some practical hints. ELJ Journal 2 (2) 1–7.

Recommended reading

Wursten H & Jacobs C (2013) The impact of culture on education: Can we introduce best practices in education across countries?’ ITIM International 1 1–28.


Roy Edwards currently designs and teaches courses in the Faculty of English Programme at Abdullah Gul University in Turkey. He has previously taught and managed MBA, Academic Communication Skills and EAP programmes in the UK, Turkey, Vietnam, China and Japan. Roy’s research and publication interests are in cross-cultural communications and learning styles.

royarthur.edwards@agu.edu.tr