Sum It Up: Strategies to Summarize Learning

Ken Templeton | 08.25.2014

Think of a teacher you vividly remember from school. Or, perhaps, you’re a student now—think of a teacher you have. How true is this statement? “My teacher takes time to summarize what we learn each day.”

In national data from the MET Project, between 38% and 67% of students typically respond that this statement was “mostly true” or “totally true.”

iWalkthrough Student Feedback data template allows teachers to compare their results with the national MET sample.

The iWalkthrough Student Feedback data template allows teachers to compare their results with the national MET sample.

Sometimes it can feel like class time is so precious that we don’t have time to summarize or debrief–and yet we know that when students reflect on their learning, they are more likely to retain it…in other words, to learn it.

Here are a few ways to help students think about what they have learned at the end of a class period.

1. Summarize through self-assessment

Many teachers use the powerful strategy of framing learning targets as “I can” statements. For example: “I can evaluate the credibility of an on-line source.” By writing learning targets in this way, you can use them at the beginning of a class or unit, along the way, and at the end. Self-assessments do not have to be lengthy experiences – some teachers use a simple hand gesture (thumbs up/sideways/down), or color-coded cards at the end of a class to get a sense of where students think they are in relationship to the learning goals. Others use an on-line poll like this one and project the results for students, which can prompt a quick discussion at the end of class, or provide a through line to the next class experience. (If using learning targets is a new idea, we have a post on them here.)

2. Exit ticket

An exit ticket is a short formative assessment of student learning. The purpose of the ticket is for the teacher to see the spectrum of student understanding at the end of a class. The exit ticket should be explicitly tied to the learning target. For example, if the learning target is: “I can evaluate the credibility of an on-line source,” the exit ticket might be:


Exit tickets should be assessments that students can complete in less than five minutes. The reason for brevity is more for the teacher than for the students. If exit tickets are to be truly formative assessments, they will lead to adjustments in teaching and learning—but if each student’s exit ticket is a two-page response, those adjustments won’t happen very rapidly.

Remember that what makes an assessment formative is not whether it’s graded, what category of assignment you call it (homework, test, quiz) or how long it is: it is how it is used. If I have students complete an exit ticket, say goodbye, put the slips of paper on my desk, and never look at the tickets to inform my instruction, it is not a formative assessment—it’s just an activity. (If this is a new idea, here’s some more information about formative assessment from my colleagues at GSP and here’s a wonderful chart of a variety of ways to check for student understanding from S0MIRAC.)

3. Debrief circle

All teachers know that movement can spur thinking. In this video, teacher Maria Ekmalian circles up her students at the end of class. The students follow a series of prompts to discuss their learning. In this way, students get the chance to hear each other’s ideas about the class and what they have learned.

4. Tell a story

One of the most fascinating ideas James Gallimore and James Hiebert found in The Teaching Gap is that teachers in Japan rarely, if ever, used overhead projectors. Why not? Because students need to see the story of the problem. If the class begins with confusion, they need to see the progression toward understanding. Most classrooms in Japan feature large chalkboards or whiteboards that are not erased during the lesson so that students can see how the lesson has unfolded.

Not all classrooms are equipped in this way–and buying chart paper for your classroom will get expensive quickly. But it can help students if the teacher takes time at the end of class to wrap up by telling the story of the lesson. In our example about on-line sources, the teacher may “tell the story” of one lesson in the unit this way:

We began today with fake news. I shared with you a story that I pretended was real, and most of you believed it initially, because, you said “it looked real.”

We then talked in small groups to think more about what news “looks” like and how visual images can make us believe something is credible. We wrote those ideas over here on the whiteboard. Miguel mentioned that if the use of charts and data as visuals; Shawna commented that it makes a difference if a news anchor is dressed formally, and Debra shared that pictures of what is described in the story lend credibility of the source.

Then, we spent most of our time in your discussion groups comparing two news stories about the same event—but they took different perspectives. You identified the things the stories had in common and those that were different and came to some agreement that many of the facts of the stories were the same, but the commentary expressed in the stories suggested different conclusions.

Your exit ticket today is this. Pretend you’re talking with a friend or family member and they are angry about a news story they just read. Write down three things you would tell that person to do to check the credibility of that source.

It only takes a couple of minutes to use one of these strategies. But for many students, connecting the dots between the beginning, middle, and end of class is the crucial step in learning.

Especially at the secondary level, where students may leave this class in Social Studies or English and have between 3-6 more classes that day addressing completely different ideas, after school commitments such as work or extracurriculars, socializing, family time, and (hopefully) some sleep, we can understand why kids might not always remember what they learned in the last class. Having the opportunity to summarize and reflect can provide that much-needed bridge and improve student learning.

What are some of your strategies to summarize learning with your students?

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