Hacking their hack: how embracing online summaries revolutionised my classes

With students struggling to focus on and comprehend assignments, summaries can take some of the leg work out of learning and allow students to come to class ready to connect

Catherine Ross's avatar
University of Texas at Tyler
9 Dec 2022
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Online books and summaries

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I teach English literature at a state university, and over the past decade – especially in the years of pandemic and lockdown – I have watched as many of my students have started to struggle. It’s as if they are fogged in. They have a harder time staying focused on and comprehending their assignments. Unfortunately, staple texts in my discipline, such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Jane Eyre, are long, dense and rooted in an unfamiliar culture, so now even English majors are having trouble making sense of works such as these.

I’ve talked frankly with my students about these matters. They tell me they can’t concentrate as well as they used to, that they are more easily distracted and that they have trouble making connections. The good news – relatively speaking – is that my students are as worried as I am about their troubles. They want help, especially when they are at home alone – and not a few are turning to the internet.

Recognising that students now almost automatically go online for assistance, I’ve looked into many of the online sites to which they turn. Though many professors view these sites as crutches or even cheating, I’ve started treating online resources as another tool for my teaching. I recommend and curate certain sites for my students such as SparkNotes, Chegg, Course Hero, Shmoop and WikiSummaries.

When I do this, I caution students to use the summaries as guides only, to read critically (I don’t agree with some of the details included the summaries) and to think for themselves. But I explain how summaries can help students overcome some of their comprehension and recall difficulties. You might say that I’ve hacked their hack.

In fact, my routine is now to require students to read good online plot summaries of their assigned novels. I also give them eight guiding, probing questions about each reading assignment that help them think more critically as they study. They are, of course, required to read the entire text itself and to write answers to at least 75 per cent of the questions. These questions constitute a rubric for reading and help level the field for all students in the class.

When students get to class, they take a brief quiz that they cannot pass if they haven’t read the book. After that, we use the guiding questions to shape class discussion. Because they have already thought about and written on those questions, every student – even the shyest or most uncertain – has a script from which to speak in class.

When I first told my students we were going to use online plot summaries, they thought I was kidding. “Isn’t this cheating?” they asked. Then I explained my reasoning: scholars in my field gain their critical expertise by re-reading texts. It is only in the second (or third or fifth) reading of a novel such as Jane Eyre – when you not only know the secrets about the “madwoman in the attic” but have also seen how carefully Charlotte Brontë has built her narrative to hide the truth in plain sight – that the author’s skill in crafting plot and creating characters becomes more apparent.

I don’t want students just to know what happened in the novel; I want them to see the structure of the narrative, the craft that makes these characters so compelling, and echoes in this book of some of their own questions about life. Students don’t have time to read novels twice, but if they have the plot figured out before they start, with short chapter summaries nearby, and if they know who all the characters are ahead of time, their first reading is more informed, and they come to class readier to make connections and share their thoughts.

I’ve used this method for four semesters now, and it works with students at all levels. They report enjoying the readings more, and they come away with improved understanding and skills. I have also gathered evidence from students about how this pedagogy is working. The data come from their initial, midterm and final self-assessments of learning skills from two British literature survey classes. Though it is a small, qualitative, self-reported sample, the results seem significant. Students improved significantly in 15 skills areas. Their most impressive improvements – by one-and-a-half self-assessed letter grades – came in their ability to notice significant details, communicate what they think or feel in writing and discern what is important and worth remembering.

So, what do my students say about this method? One student said the plot summaries work like maps of the reading and that my guiding questions serve as “the compass that shows us the way through”. Another student wrote: “I would be lost in the book sometimes trying to understand the different diction and words the author used. The summaries saved me time and helped me see different themes and details that I probably would have missed.” Not one student complained about this plot summary “hack”.

Educators in many disciplines, from the sciences to art history, can use this map-and-compass method with challenging material. A colleague at the University of Texas at Austin is including summaries in a new biochemistry textbook he’s co-authoring. I recently overheard one of my students, who describes herself as “a STEM person”, telling a maths professor how he might use the method in a calculus class.

Students are looking for help finding a way out of the fog of the past few years, and this method seems to be working. When students tell me they go online to finish their homework, I tell them it’s a good start and that I’m glad they’re trying to help themselves learn. I talk with them about using online materials as maps through their assigned readings, and then I give them the most useful tool: a compass in the form of guiding expert questions. In many cases, this is the combination of support they need to get themselves out of the fog.

Catherine Ross is an associate professor of English and distinguished teaching professor at the University of Texas at Tyler. She is a winner of the University of Texas system’s highest teaching honour, the Regents’ Prize for Outstanding Teaching. She also serves on the academic advisory board of Course Hero.

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