Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Let's Get to the Point: Implementing Two-Sentence Summaries in Your Classroom

Elizabeth Morse
Cell Biology Ph.D. Candidate, Yale Teaching Center Fellow

It's Tuesday night at 7PM, and it’s time to begin another one of your fantastically stimulating discussion sections. The article you assigned your students to read was, of course, academically intoxicating, and somehow, today, you overcame your research or grant-writing to get to this highly anticipated moment. This article represents a pivotal turning point in your field, a cataclysmic push to a new frontier of knowledge; its significance - clearly world-changing.  
And so you begin.    
“So, who wants to start us off and tell us about this week’s reading?”

Sudden silence. The pre-class chatter about exam results and Facebook and Miley Cyrus has ceased. There are twenty-three faces in front of you, carrying forty-six undergraduate eyes, and not one of them is looking at you. Did you realize how large that stain is on the carpet? Can you believe how many crumbs from dinner are now stuck behind your finger nails? Does the clock on the wall always tick that loudly?
Like most awkward silences, this moment was likely preventable. While I do not claim to have the miracle cure-all that will alleviate all of your symptoms of uncomfortable silence, sustained student disinterest or general academic complacency, I would like to offer you a technique proven (in my hands) to increase student engagement, bolster academic discussion and immediately focus student attention on course material. If desired, this technique can be adapted such that it simultaneously gauges initial student understanding (what the teaching world calls “pre-assessment”), takes your attendance and provides an easy means of encouraging – and grading – participation. It does just about everything but walk your dog.

Intrigued? I give you: The Two-Sentence Summary.

The Two-Sentence Summary: What Is It?

The beauty of the two-sentence summary is its simplicity: upon entering the classroom, students pick-up an index card and are instructed to compose a concise statement (no more than two sentences) that summarizes the main point of an assigned reading. That’s it. After students have had a few minutes to write, you, the instructor, begin class with a slightly altered version of the question above:

“So, who wants to start us off and share his or her two-sentence summary of this week’s reading?”

 Awesome. By giving students time to quietly think, and by making your initial question slightly more specific, suddenly there are hands raised. You have made your expectations clear, and you have given your students space to compose a response that reflects their current understanding of the material. The section begins with a discussion of the most important, take-home message, and you can immediately assess whether your students identified this point (or points) or will need your guidance to do so.

The Two-Sentence Summary: Advantages for Students and Instructors Alike

In regularly implementing two-sentence summaries in my class, a science section that discusses a primary scientific literature article each week, I observed four key advantages to this activity:

1)     A memorable main point – Countless studies have demonstrated that students learn better when they are actively involved in their own learning – through writing, discussing, participating in group work, problem-solving, etc. (i.e. “active learning”). When asked to critically evaluate the main point of an assignment rather than passively receiving this information from an instructor, students are more likely to remember the take-home message. 
2)     Students settle down to summarize – We must acknowledge that this week’s assignment might not be the first thing on our students’ minds when they enter our classrooms. As such, the brilliance of the authors’ experimental methods to determine the infection mode of the bacterium Listeria might not be their current focus. When students enter my class, I typically display a PowerPoint slide with a two-sentence summary prompt and the location of index cards. Without any additional direction from me, students wind down the pre-class chatter and begin to focus on the task at hand. Over time, I even noticed that some students started arriving a few minutes earlier to have more time to review their materials and compose their summaries before class. Ah, the joy of prepared students!

3)     Concise communication – Research from a wide variety of disciplines is often reported in the mass media, on the nightly news or on NPR, in short sound bites. How do we teach our students to accurately – and concisely – summarize important findings, so that no meaning is lost? Practice. Lots and lots of practice, beginning with when they first encounter the pivotal findings of others in our classrooms. Don’t be surprised if you encounter some resistance to brevity. I have had the pleasure of challenging the ninja-like semi-colon that camouflages superfluous independent clauses.

4)     Inclusivity – What I have loved about two-sentence summaries is the environment of inclusivity it creates at the start of class. Students who have struggled with the intricacies of a reading can check their understanding by focusing on the overarching message. As one of my students commented on a course evaluation, “Participation was handled in a way that everyone could contribute even if the information was difficult to understand.” On the other hand, advanced students who have readily digested the material may be challenged to develop the language skills required to concisely craft their statements. 

The Two-Sentence Summary: Adapting to Your Classroom

If you are considering implementing two-sentence summaries in your classroom, here are some adaptations you might consider:

Why, yes, I have attendance records! – Want to monitor attendance without taking extra time out of your class? Have students write their names on their two-sentence summaries and collect them. Voila! You know who was in class (and who did the reading).

Participation: To Grade or Not to Grade? – You might use the two-sentence summaries as an assessment, assigning point values to their completion and/or quality. In a class I taught in which the lead instructor required participation, I used the index card as the physical “ticket” to their participation grade. The first time that a student participated in a given class, he/she turned in his/her index card to me. At the start of class, everyone wanted to get rid of his or her card! This got the discussion rolling right from the start, and also prevented a handful of students from dominating the discussion. As one of my students wrote on the subsequent course evaluation, “I enjoy how my section leader goes out of her way to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate.”
Pre- and Post-Assessment – Have you asked your students to summarize a finding at the start of class to gauge their initial understanding (i.e. pre-assessment)? Why not collect these summaries, and have them again summarize the finding at the end of class, or at the end of a unit, to collect real data on the effectiveness of your teaching (i.e. post-assessment)? Has your students’ understanding evolved? For the true over-achieving teachers, present the “before” and “after” snapshots to your students to encourage them to be cognizant of their own learning (i.e. “meta-cognition”).

The Two-Sentence Summary: A Two-Sentence Summary 

When emphasizing the main point of an assignment or concept, students may be asked to produce a concise summary of the take-home message in two sentences or less. By providing students with time to independently reflect, your students will be more actively involved in their learning, and in your class! 

Tell us about it! If you have tried out two-sentence summaries in your class, we would love to hear from you! Please feel free to comment with your experiences or suggestions on this post. 



  1. I love this idea, but your own two-sentence summary is grammatically incorrect. In both sentences, the words before the comma do not relate to the subject of the clause after the comma, as they should.

    1. I'm happy you liked the idea! Thanks for your feedback. Your comment inspires me to promote some active learning right on this blog! How would you best summarize the advantages of a two-sentence summary in two sentences? I'd love to hear your suggestion, MGViola!

      - Elizabeth

    2. The comma has uses other than anaphoric or cataphoric referencing. The commas in Elizabeth's example are correctly used, because they set off the introductory elements in both sentences, to wit, adverbial phrases of time and manner, respectively.

      Great explanation of the value of the 2-sentence summary, Elizabeth!

  2. How can you express your feelings in two sentence. I have loved about two-sentence summaries is the environment of inclusive which me creates at the start of class.

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