Summarizing is one of the most crucial skills in law school. To make this point to my students, I like to turn to my Teaching Assistant and ask him how much he uses summarizing in his judicial clerkship, to which he solemnly responds: “All the time.”
However, teaching summarizing to international LL.M. students can be extremely challenging. Think about it: How did you learn to summarize? Personally, I can’t identify any one moment when I figured it out. And I can’t point to any specific and helpful strategy that was ever explicitly taught to me for summarizing. I just figured it out over time through trial and error and have internalized it to the point where it’s difficult to explain how I know how to do it. (I imagine this is the same for others. But please share if you have a different experience.)
I think one aspect of good summarizing is comprehension: It’s difficult to summarize well if you don’t fully comprehend the information you’re required to summarize.
A second piece of summarizing is control of the written language–word choice and generally being able to make the text convey the meaning and nuance you intend. This is of course a significant obstacle for many international students in LL.M. programs.
And a third component of summarizing is a student’s sense of what is expected in a summary: This can be partly a function of academic background and partly a function of culture as well.
After noticing in prior classes that a number of my students were not producing effective summaries, and after finding zero success through the approach of exhorting them multiple times to “focus on the most important information,” I finally settled on a different approach.
Each day, on a rotating basis, one student is responsible for writing a summary of the day’s class and posting it to a “Class Summary” thread on our TWEN page. The other students are then required to read the summary and post a bit of additional information not included in the summary. This ensures that students are summarizing a topic that they are very familiar with. It also provides a summary language sample that I can analyze and that we can all review and discuss together as a class.
In class, I like to put it on the big screen and ask students if they think the summary provides enough information or not enough information. This often leads to a difference of opinion which helps flush out a difference in expectations of what a summary should provide. For example, a couple students have posted comments on the TWEN thread to the effect that everything was covered and there is nothing else to add. I take that opportunity to point out that unless a complete transcript of the class was posted, there is always something else to add.
As we analyze the summary on the screen together, inevitably a student will notice the lack of specificity in a phrase like “We reviewed some questions about U.S. legal authority.” This can lead to the suggestion to add an additional line beginning with, “e.g., the three branches of government, checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, etc.” After a few of these, students start to build awareness of words that come across as vague, such as “things”, “some,” and generic phrases such as “U.S. legal authority.” They also start to notice solutions for increasing explicitness such as using “e.g.,” or using signal words and phrases like “First,…..Next,….Then,…” as well as transitional words and phrases indicating contrast or cause and effect. And knowing that their summary will be screened and dissected builds in accountability and an incentive to try out approaches and strategies we’ve discussed from previous discussions. There is of course trial and error involved in the learning process, but given a safe classroom environment, the students are happy to have a chance to keep trying to work out all the kinks.
The activity also leads to a discussion of audience. Who do we anticipate reading these summaries? Their classmates of course. But also the professor. And any classmates who were absent that day. In other words, they need to be more explicit than they often realize.
There are also some side benefits for the “Summary of the Day” activity. Mentally reviewing and then writing or talking about what happened in the previous class increases retention of ideas or information from the class. It also helps recycle and provide multiple exposures to certain vocabulary. Additionally, it’s helpful for any student who might have missed the class. And frankly, it’s sometimes a helpful review for me as well. Plus, I get feedback on what they actually take away and value from each class.
In summary, it seems to be effective so far. I’ll continue to pay attention to the extent to which it seems to improve their writing overall.
Bonus idea: I also plan to insert myself into the summarizing rotation. My thinking is that it will provide the students with models demonstrating my expectation for summarizing as well as samples of language and summarizing strategies they can incorporate into their summaries. I’ll try to post about the results of this idea later in this semester.