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I am far enough along with an introductory textbook in the computing field that it looks like I might finish. For each chapter so far, I've written a final "Summary" section that recapitulates the most important points. I've begun to worry that students will read the summary sections only and thereby miss the other gems of knowledge in my deathless prose. (After all, the summary can't contain everything, and if something isn't important, why include it at all?)

It is my intention that the summaries reinforce the most important points in each chapter and so are an aid to learning for the student who has read the chapter. My worry is that there will be students who believe, incorrectly, that a page or two of summary covers the whole chapter.

Is there research, pro or con, about the usefulness / harmfulness of summary sections in textbooks? (I've looked and haven't found anything, but I'm a computer scientist and so am out of my field.)

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  • I don't know of research or best practices, so keeping this to a maybe obvious comment: it seems like the deathless prose is more of an issue of concern than the presence or absence of a summary section.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 10, 2020 at 15:21
  • @BryanKrause I'm not sure I understand your comment. The chapter on digital logic is 22 pages long; it starts with Boolean algebra and ends with edge-triggered storage devices and the importance of the clock signal. The chapter summary is a page and a quarter. The student who reads the summary only will miss, among many other things, shifters and De Morgan's theorem. The student who reads the chapter and the summary will have Boolean algebra, computation with combinational circuits, and the utility of clock signals emphasized.
    – Bob Brown
    Jun 10, 2020 at 15:30
  • If someone can read the summary and understand the topics it includes without reading the rest of the chapter, then much of the rest of the chapter is a waste of time and space for the student and the writer, except for the parts that were omitted from the summary. Similarly, if the rest of the chapter is such a slog that a student would prefer to abandon it for the simple glimpse they can get from the summary, then the chapter needs improvement.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 10, 2020 at 15:37
  • @BryanKrause OK... assuming I know what's important and what's a waste of time for the student, then the summary is a waste of my time, eh? (And the contrary assumption, that I don't know what's important, means the whole exercise is a waste of my time.)
    – Bob Brown
    Jun 10, 2020 at 15:41
  • I think you're putting words in my mouth. A summary (in any piece of writing, whether a textbook, essay, blog, or SE answer) should serve to reinforce and restate key points from the previous section. If it is sufficient to understand the topic from the summary alone, then the summary is either too detailed or the preceding text is too pedantic.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 10, 2020 at 15:44

1 Answer 1

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I've been struggling with this for months. I think I've found the answer to my implied question in the words of another textbook author, Ken Saladin.

"...tell students what they should know about, but not what to know about it."

Following Saladin's advice, I've re-titled the summary sections Summary of Learning Objectives. Each summary section now starts with the following:

This section of the chapter tells you the things you should know about, but not what you should know about them. To test your knowledge, discuss the following concepts and topics with a study partner or in writing, ideally from memory.

That's nearly a direct quote from Saladin's suggestion. I hope the first sentence will dissuade students from thinking they can read the summaries only.

I suggest those interested in the question read Dr. Saladin's entire, but short, blog post: https://blog.taaonline.net/2020/02/textbook-pedagogy-improving-chapter-summaries-encourages-collaborative-learning/

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    A very good way of putting it. Of course, students "committed to minimizing their effort" will still misunderstand their own best interest, etc. But, yes, explaining the significance/point of summaries is an undeniable good (as is giving summaries, in my opinion). Oct 9, 2020 at 22:12

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