Why students should make topic summaries

Keeping up with a lot of course content can be very stressful, especially when assignment due dates are looming or you see exams on the horizon.  The key to reducing that stress is to be organised, and one way you can organise your course content is to make summaries.

Making summaries of (especially long and complex) course notes not only allows you to highlight key points, but also gives you the opportunity to identify recurring concepts or themes which might complement or contrast with other concepts and themes.  This should allow you to write more comprehensive essays, and is likely to improve your understanding so that you write better answers during tests and exams.

Summaries are extremely useful for open-book exams because they can often be combined at the end of semester to construct a type of annotated table of contents for your resources.  This can be cross-referenced to the resources you take into the exam, which will let you look up references faster, allowing you more time to get on with the business of writing your answers.

Summaries are great preparation for closed-book exams too.  I’m not saying you should use them as ‘cheat sheetsduring an exam.  (Don’t ever do that.  It’s not worth the risk of getting caught, or the damage to your integrity and self-esteem even if you don’t get caught.)

The process of thinking about ‘what’s important here’ and ‘how/why it works’ has an additional benefit.  The increased familiarity with the resources you gain from making the summaries is in itself a benefit, but by sorting out what’s what in information, you are actually allowing your brain an opportunity to fit important concepts into your framework of knowledge.

Don’t leave it until the exam preparation period though; partly because that’s when you should be revising; not learning; and partly because courses are almost always structured so that early content forms a foundation for later content.  If you miss something important at the beginning, the rest of the semester could be unnecessarily difficult.  The thing is, you can’t reliably tell what’s important (unless your lecturer says it’s not important, which is unlikely, because then it wouldn’t be in the course) so it’s safer to assume everything is.

Image Source: http://give-wings-to-strength.tumblr.com/page/7

Make a summary for each subject at the end of each week.  If you have access to the lecturer’s topic objectives or PowerPoint slides, this should provide you with an overview of the main points that you can fill out with notes you’ve made from your reading and attending class.

Then ask yourself the questions ‘is there anything here that I don’t understand well enough to explain to someone else in my own words?’; and, if so, ‘what can I do to improve that understanding?’.  Then do what you need to do.  This is a form of reflective learning, which can keep you see which areas of your subject you find most difficult – and these are the ones you should look at more closely before you move on to the next week’s content.

Usually it means you need to read your text book (again), or practice more activities, or more of whatever else your lecturer has recommended. If, after doing that, you are still not confident, take your work with you to see your lecturer during consultation hours.  Show what you’ve done, and ask what advice they have.  It may turn out that you are on track, and if not, they should be able to point out some missing piece of the puzzle.

Of course summary notes don’t always have to look the like the Cornell example, above.  Some people have visual learning styles, and benefit from using images and colors.  Here are three impressive examples I found on the internet:





By Emily Cuthbert


If you have a different way of summarising, let us know in the comments below.  If you’d like to include an example, you can include a link – or just upload a photo to Nerdy Swot’s Facebook page at any time.

Until next time, #MindYourMojo

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