Summarise and synthesise – outlining the main points in a text (summarising) and combining related key points (synthesising).
A summary is a snapshot of a larger text – a brief overview. It may or may not include all of the most important information; however, it does include the main points. Teachers often require learners to summarise texts such as chapters, short stories or films. A summary can be as short as a few lines or as long as a few pages. Most of the time however, a summary is between 60 and 120 words (about a paragraph). Summaries can be expressed in several ways (such as dot points, paragraphs, verbally, or via a drawing or diagram).
Summaries are used to organise information and to demonstrate or showcase a student’s level of comprehension; they require students to sift through details one sentence at a time, and to consider how each detail fits within the overall text.
The cognitive process of summarising a text has several key benefits: it requires the student to take a macro (top-down) look at the text, to isolate the main points (such as important events), to explain the key points in their own words and to show the relationship between important events or people. All of these things require students to consider the text in a deeper way, thereby improving their comprehension of it. In addition, an active re-read is required with the specific intention of identifying key points for inclusion in the summary.
Hint: a common summarising and synthesising method is to have students write a short summary per chapter or section. Each summary can then be collated to form a larger summary or synthesised into a smaller final summary. Another strategy is to have students create a timeline of key events.
Summaries are used to organise information and to demonstrate or showcase a student’s level of comprehension; they require students to sift through details one sentence at a time, and to consider how each detail fits within the overall text. Because of this, writing a summary is a very difficult task for most students (including adult learners). For a given text, teachers have a higher level of comprehension and may falsely assume that students have a similar level of understanding or that they can easily summarise the text with little support or scaffolding – this is a common mistake.
Before writing a summary, students need to learn how to approach the task: how to actively re-read, what to look out for, how to record information, how to decide what to discard and what to keep, and how to put the final summary together. Teachers should model this process first, preferably using a think-aloud strategy. Students should begin with simple, short and easy-to-access texts before moving onto more complex, longer and more challenging texts.
In other words, synthesising can be thought of as summarising multiple summaries.
The ability to summarise a text is a useful, transferable skill (as well as a metacognitive skill). Take for example a person who intends to buy a car. Being able to read and summarise a detailed review means the buyer can compare vehicles more easily and is more likely to make the best decision. The buyer may want to synthesise multiple reviews for a given vehicle into a single, user-friendly summary to allow for easier comparison with other vehicles. This reduces buying-decision risk by diversifying the pool of information sources.
Synthesising is basically the same as summarising with a minor but important difference: it involves the more challenging step of combining and condensing key points from multiple sources or summaries. In other words, synthesising can be thought of as summarising multiple summaries. For example, 3 reviews about a vehicle are each summarised; all 3 are then combined to form a single summary – duplicate information is deleted, similar information is combined, and appropriate strategies employed for dealing with conflicting information. Synthesising involves a degree of analysis and interpretation in order to determine what elements can be combined and what is to be deleted.
Hint: many teachers don’t discriminate between a summary and a synthesis for practical purposes. It can also confuse students. The phrase ‘summarise and synthesise’ is common in essay questions. However, in many cases, teachers are actually asking for (and mark for) a summary and a basic analysis.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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