A chapter in a typical textbook will present all the information, in detail, and then conclude with a chapter summary. The logic behind this is that, after reading all those details, you’ll want to refresh your memory with an overview.
The science of learning, however, shows that this standard format is backwards.
It turns out, we comprehend and remember the details better if we read the summary first. Luckily, there’s no law against flipping through the pages of a textbook out of order. Any student can easily flip to the end, read the summary, and then return to the beginning and read the chapter. Of course, this requires actually having a textbook, which we are strongly in favor of.
But why is this better?
Why does it help to start with the summary?
One reason is that, because a summary provides only the big picture, it is digestible. We can understand it. And once we’ve discerned the lay of the land, it’s much easier to examine the details without feeling overwhelmed and confused.
History textbooks are perhaps the best example of this. A typical history chapter will present a deluge of information that inundates the mind. Most readers don’t know which details to focus on. What really matters here? Which facts are most likely to show up on the test? But when readers get a sense of the big picture first, they navigate through the chapter more adeptly. Because they understand what story the information is telling, they have an easier time deciding which details to pay attention to and which ones to discard.
Often, a chapter summary will briefly mention how this chapter’s content fits into the textbook as a whole – how its ideas are connected with the other ideas in the course. When we see how it fits into the larger puzzle we’re building, it makes more sense and sticks in our minds more easily. The new knowledge has a home, a place where it belongs. Conversely, ideas are much more difficult to understand and remember if they’re presented at random with no explicit connection to things we already know.
Normally, the big picture offers a sense of the subject matter’s significance. A good summary will explain why the content is important. When we know why something matters, we become more motivated to learn the details. We also remember the content better because significance is one way to convince the brain to care.
What if there is no summary?
Unfortunately, many textbooks do not contain a chapter summary. Dr. Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and co-creator of Coursera’s Learning How to Learn, offers a solution.
She suggests that we flip through the chapter and read the section headings and sub-headings before reading. When we do this, we get a sense of where the chapter is going and what the big ideas are, which is almost as good as reading a chapter summary. This process also creates metaphorical bookshelves in the mind, complete with boxes and folders. Learning a mess of details is easier when we can sort the information into categories and sub-categories.
In many cases, however, this won’t be enough. For example, the most commonly used textbook for AP World History is Strayer and Nelson’s Ways of the World, which contains a staggering amount of detail and no chapter summaries. The amount of ground covered and the level of detail make reading the section headings in each chapter woefully insufficient. Students need to seek out summaries and additional teachers online to make AP World History easier to navigate. Here are some resources that I’ve found:
- Period review (really big picture)
- CrashCourse World History
- CrashCourse World History 2
- Heimler’s History
- Chapter by chapter video lectures
- Full chapter lectures
And it’s not just textbooks that struggle with this. Sometimes teachers neglect to provide an overview before diving into the details. I see this most often in biology, specifically with the topic of meiosis. Meiosis is the special type of cell division that produces sex cells: eggs and sperm. The process takes many steps, introduces a bunch of new vocabulary, and is, well, pretty overwhelming:
Students benefit enormously from seeing a highly simplified version of meiosis before attempting to digest this Thanksgiving feast of biological detail.
But just as no one needs to be a victim of a textbook without chapter summaries, no one should be a victim of a teacher who fails to deliver an overview before teaching the details. In most classes, it’s fairly easy to predict what topic is going to be taught next, and seek out a pre-lecture summary of the topic that will be covered in tomorrow’s lecture. And if you’re not sure what’s coming, ask questions.
Students are in charge of their own success. Preparing for lectures by finding summaries the night before and seeking out additional resources to improve your comprehension of a textbook are both excellent ways to practice being an active agent. The ability to go find what you need and use it to succeed is the most important skill students can learn in school.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
Meiosis: “Meiosis.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2010. https://www.britannica.com/science/meiosis-cytology.