Let’s get to work with productive learning strategies: Summarising

Paul A. Kirschner, Mirjam Neelen, Tine Hoof & Tim Surma

This blog is the first one in a series of eight blogs, originally written by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma & Paul Kirschner, and published on excel.thomasmore.be.

In 2015, Richard Mayer and Logan Fiorella published their book ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ describing eight generative learning strategies. They’re called generative (also productive) because they allow/force learners to ‘remould’ the subject matter and based on that, create their own output, such as a summary or a drawing. In other words, as a learner, you generate/produce something yourself based on and that goes further than what you’ve learned. In addition to summarising, Mayer and Fiorella also discuss mapping, drawing, imagining, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting.

Each strategy prompts learners to apply Mayer’s Selection, Organising, and Integrating (SOI) memory model. According to this model learners go through three processes during productive learning:

  1. selection – learners select the most important ideas from the information source (a book, teacher, multimedia presentation …).
    After this selection follows
  2. organising – the selected important ideas are placed in context and organised into a coherent structure that establishes links between the new subject matter and prior knowledge.
    Finally, after organising the selected information the learner moves on to
  3. integrating – the new information is integrated (assimilation according to Piaget, 1977) into knowledge schemes in long-term memory or existing knowledge schemata are updated (accommodation according to Piaget, 1977) based on the new information (Mayer, 2014).


Assimilation vs accomodation


Mayer and Fiorella answer the following questions for each strategy:

  • What does the strategy entail?
  • How strong is the scientific evidence?
  • Why is the strategy effective?
  • How can the strategy be used in instruction?
  • What are the possible limitations of the strategy?

In this series of blogs, we bring the answers to these questions, illustrated with examples from the classroom. Today’s first blog is about summarising as a productive strategy.


Summarising as a productive learning strategy means taking key information from a source and rephrasing it into your own words. Learners can apply this strategy in different ways (orally or in writing) and at different times in the learning process (e.g., after reading a short paragraph, at the end of a larger chapter, or as a writing strategy during a lecture).




Summarising is a cognitively active process in which learners must first select the core ‘message’ from a source. Then they look for connections between the new subject matter they just engaged with. Finally, they try to link it to their prior knowledge and make meaning out of it. This process helps them to get a deeper understanding of the subject matter (Wittrock, 1974). When learners summarise, they need to edit, shorten, adapt, and reformulate/paraphrase the material in order to arrive at a concise representation (i.e., the summary). In addition to this active processing function, summarising also provides benefits afterwards: summaries can be used as a review tool (Peverley & Wolf, 2019). Of course, the greatest memory benefit would potentially lie in what the learner actually does with the summary afterwards. It goes without saying that learners who actively retrieve the subject matter have bigger benefits than learners who only reread the summary.

In class, it’s worthwhile to allow time for summarising and, for example, letting learners compare and discuss their summaries with each other so that they reflect on both the summary process (i.e. their own way of summarising) and the learning process, as well as work on their metacognitive and summarising skills. Summarising effectively is a skill! You have to learn how to do it well and practise it often and in different situations, and that starts in the lesson! General guidelines for teaching learning strategies can be read in this article (Hoof, Surma, Muijs, & Kirschner, 2020).


Teachers can have students take notes in class, using the Cornell method  during class, for example (also see our blog here). In this particular way of summarising, learners combine the benefits of two effective productive strategies, namely summarising and self-testing.


Cornell Notes Examples

However, summaries can also be much shorter. For example, students can briefly explain the core idea of a video or, when reading a longer text, summarise each paragraph in one sentence or a ‘tweet’ in writing, either with or without the source text. By limiting the number of words (for example maximum 30) or characters (the Twitter maximum is 280 characters), learners are forced to limit themselves to the core of the materials.

Possible limitations

Dunlosky and colleagues (2013) categorise this strategy as ‘less useful’, mainly because the strategy can’t be successfully applied to any subject, to any type of subject matter, and to any learner. For example, the benefits are most clear for higher education entry-level students. A possible explanation for this is that they already have more experience in summarising as a strategy for processing information. Also, these students have more domain-specific knowledge than younger ones (Dunlosky et al, 2013). In subjects such as chemistry and physics, where the subject matter is often shown in a diagram or table and thus already summarised, teachers and learners are better off choosing a different strategy.

One of the major limitations of this strategy is that its effectiveness depends on the quality of the summary (Does the summary contain the main ideas? Is the new information linked to relevant, already discussed learning material?). Therefore, the teacher must provide explicit instruction on how to write effective summaries, through modelling the strategy during the lesson, and explaining when and why it works. Of course, the instruction must also include guiding learners in practising and of course providing feedback as well. Just explaining it once in class isn’t enough. It must be practised in all subjects, with the understanding that the teacher (or a fellow student) then watches or listens to the summary and corrects or provides feedback if necessary. However, this process can take a lot of time, and therefore, sometimes it’s better to choose a different strategy (Dunlosky, 2013).

Another risk is that learners will literally copy information and that they won’t shorten or paraphrase the information. In other words, they just ‘cut and paste’, and aren’t cognitively active in processing the new learning material and building new knowledge schemes in the long-term memory. This is of course very ineffective. Maybe requiring it to be written and not done on a computer here or requiring it to be done, in first instance, without the source text visible (i.e., closing the book or the document on screen).

Scientific evidence

Fiorella and Mayer refer to 30 studies that examined summarising as a productive strategy. In 26 of these studies, it had a positive effect, but we shouldn’t overlook that these studies also list many preconditions.

Within ExCEL, the Expertise Centre Effective Learning at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences (Belgium), a study comparing the effectiveness of Cornell notes with earlier classic summaries in distance learning is currently underway.


Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the student toolbox. American Educator, 37(3), 12-21. Retrieved from www.bit.ly/2YpLDeC

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Enser, Z. & Enser, M. (2020). Fiorella & Mayer’s Generative Learning in Action. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). Learning as a generative activity: eight learning strategies that promote understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, R. E. (2014). Cognitive theory of multimedia learning in Mayer, R. E. (ed.) The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning. 2nd edn. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 43-71.

Peverly, S. T., & Wolf, A. D. (2019). Note-taking. In J. Dunlosky & K. A. Rawson (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of cognition and education (pp. 320–355). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Piaget, J. (1977). Problems of equilibration. In M. H. Appel & L. S. Goldberg (Eds.), Topics in cognitive developmentVol. 1 (pp. 3–14). New York: Plenum.

Wittrock, M. C. (1974). Learning as a generative process. Educational Psychologist, 11(2), 87-95.

Wittrock, M. C. (1989). Generative processes of comprehension. Educational Psychologist, 24(4), 345-376.


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