Summarize the key ideas from the discussion
What are our minds doing when we are learning? Our minds are growing by making new and stronger connections among the neurons in our brains. We are identifying patterns, finding hidden relationships, delighting in new insights, and pondering challenges and questions.
As students are discussing ideas in the weekly conversations, their responses, perspectives, questions and ideas tend to be broad-ranging and dispersed. Often just as the conversation gets to the point of identifying key challenges and interesting relationships emerging, the week ends and a new topic begins. Often the students are left with questions such as:
- What have I learned? What do I know now that I did not know before?
- Have I changed how I think about these ideas? Or about this problem?
- What is next? Are there actions that we should pursue at some point?
- Where has this conversation taken me? Taken our group?
- What are the new challenges ahead?
- What are the experts’ opinions on this question?
- What does our faculty leader think? (It is not important for students to agree with their faculty leader, but it is important for students to know our opinion, as we are a guide to the experts, if not one of the experts.)
The purpose of a discussion wrap or summary is to bring some closure or direction to a topic. This does not mean having answers, but rather identifying the ideas to go forward and pruning to the essential concepts. We know from memory research that we remember very little of what we experience, with good reason (Damasio, 1999) Summarizing a discussion is an opportunity to help the students focus and reflect on the essential ideas and key concepts, to help isolate out key issues and develop useful knowledge, rather than be left with vague recollections.
Effective Formats for Discussion Summaries
The discussion summary can take one of many formats. Here are a few popular ones.
- Create a closing discussion forum labeled “Summary,” “Wrap-up” “Key Ideas” or labeled with a core concept for the week. These forums will help students with course reviews, etc. Faculty who teach a particular course each term can create a template for reinforcing some of the core concepts and then deftly weave in current comments.
- Create a separate word document that captures the key postings of the week integrating these statements with the core concepts
- Create a group summary by asking each student to identify the core concept for themselves from the week’s discussion. The students’ concepts can be an insight, a challenge, relationship, or pattern, or next step idea.
- Hold a live synchronous session with your students and review key ideas from a unit of 2-3 weeks and then create a summary from that activity.
- Have a summarizing discussion and review the concepts from the readings and comment on the discussion and conclusions that ensued.
Getting the Students Involved in Summarizing Discussions
Keep in mind that the creative process of preparing a summary from a week’s discussion requires advanced thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, questioning, linking ideas, and identifying patterns. These are just the types of critical thinking skills that we desire for our students. So finding ways for students to do some of the summarizing is also an effective learning activity.
Summarizing as a Small Group Activity
Summarizing a week’s worth of discussion ideas can be somewhat daunting the first time around. This is where models and examples can be very useful. To start this process you can model the first two or three examples of a discussion wrap. A next step can be to form teams of two students to develop future weekly wraps. This works particularly well in smaller graduate seminars.
The timing of the summary work is important, as it provides a transition and bridge to the next topic. So, if your students take on the role of summarizer, remember that your teaching or expert voice must be present in the complementary steps of providing confirmation, affirmation or enhancement of the students’ summary. Your opinion is a key element of the community summary from that week’s discussion work