Engaging Students, Part 2: Lecture Summaries

Transitioning from passive to active learning in our courses can be a daunting task.  At ALPS we focus quite a bit on games and simulations, and one of the chief concerns raised by newcomers to these pedagogies is the loss of control an instructor must face as they move away from a lecture model.  This week’s technique is aimed at instructors who want to dip their toes into the active learning pool, rather than cannonballing off the diving board.

Let’s talk about the lecture summary.

As discussed in Bean’s (2011) ‘Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom,  the lecture summary is a simple assignment that requires students to think through the lecture material and produce a short, paraphrased summary of the content.  Usually a paragraph or a page (250 words) in length, this can be assigned as an in-class activity at the end of a lecture, or an assignment to complete at home.

A lecture summary offers many advantages.  First, it encourages students to attend lecture, pay attention.  and take notes.  These in themselves are worthy goals for a largely lecture-based course. Second, it requires students to move from purely passive listeners of the lecture to a more active state of writing about the lecture. They must understand the material well enough in order to be able to write about it; this stimulates thinking and perhaps questions to ensure that concepts are clear.  Third, it helps students work on their writing–particularly their abilities in summarizing, paraphrasing, and brevity. Bean also notes that ‘summary writers must also suspend their own views on a subject to articulate fairly what is often an unfamiliar or even unsettling view” (p. 157).  Finally, a quick glance through the summaries will help the instructor identify whether specific content areas are confusing or if certain students are frequently lost, and provide corrections and feedback prior to a test.

As for advice on implementation, there are a number of ways to incorporate regular summaries into your class. One suggestion making the summaries required for every lecture, but allow one or two misses without penalty.  They can be a small portion of the grade–say 10%–so that each one is relatively low stakes, and graded on either a pass/fail or check-plus/check/check-minus/zero system so that they don’t take long to grade.  Alternatively, you can have them keep a journal (on paper or online) of their summaries ,and collect them at random intervals throughout the semester and grade the batch on the above system.  Another option is to employ this just once or twice in a semester as an end-of-class assignment of about 15-20 minutes, and then have students share their summaries with each other to ensure that they noted all the key points.

There you have it! An easy-to-implement technique for the newcomer to active learning that keeps the focus on lecturing while requiring students to think regularly about the material and work on key skills.  Try it out and let us know in the comments how it works.

Interested in other active learning techniques? Click here for  part one of this series, Quotes.