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How to Write an Effective Summary or Critique

(Dr. Brian Campbell, 9/1/2015)

Introduction

1.      Writing assignments at LU often require students to provide a concise summary and/or a concise critique of a journal article or a scholarly textbook.

 

2.      In order to accomplish these tasks, the student’s main objective should be to understand what the author is trying to convey to the reader.

 

3.      Don’t get lost in the details; step back and try to get the “big picture” of what important thoughts or ideas the author is trying to communicate.

 

4.      Journal articles involving scientific research are typically written according to a predetermined “structure” that is more or less standardized for all research articles, namely: Abstract; Introduction; Methods; Results; Discussion; and, References.

 

5.      In contrast to the standard “formula” for research-based articles, scholarly textbooks vary widely in terms of the way they are organized and how the information is presented.  However, even though books are not as “cookie cutter” as journal articles, the content of both journal articles and books can be conceptualized along similar lines.

Conceptualizing the Process

6.       Books and research articles typically focus on problems.   People undertake research and write books because they have identified problems that need to be addressed.  When you try to summarize or critique an article or scholarly book, a useful way to think about the process is in terms of “problem solving.”  Here is the basic flow:

 

What is the problem?

Past:  How has the problem been addressed in the past?
Present: What is the author’s approach to the problem?
Results:  What are the results/conclusions reached?

Future:  How should the problem be addressed in the future?

 

This process is described more fully in the table below.

 

7.       

 

 

Problem Solving

 

Defining the Problem:

What is the nature of the problem being addressed?  Why was the document written?  How does the author define or conceptualize the problem? 

Previous Approaches to the Problem

How has the problem been approached in the past?  How have other experts in the field attempted to address the problem.  Typically, a history and/or an overview of the problem are provided by the author.

The Author’s Approach:

What plan of action has the author adopted that will help provide new insights and/or new understanding of the problem?  What methods will be utilized to address the problem?  What experimental research will be conducted?  What conceptual framework or theoretical model will be advanced that will help answer the problem that is under consideration?

Results/Conclusions

For research articles, what was the outcome of any scientific experiment that was conducted by the author?  Did the results help shed light on the problem?  For non-research based books, did the author’s theoretical and/or conceptual approach help bring clarity or make an important contribution to the general field of study?

Future Research

At the end of journal article or textbook, the author typically discusses the future directions of his/her research or conceptual approach.  What still needs to be done?  Where is the research, theory, or conceptual framework headed in the future?

 

 

8.      It is important to understand that the author has written the book or article for a purpose.  In general, he or she is trying to make a logical argument for why the reader should adopt his/her line of reasoning and/or conclusions.   As you read the article or book, ask yourself the following questions (see below).  These questions will help you think more deeply about the article or book, and provide a basis for summarizing and/or critiquing the document you are reading

 

 

Ask Yourself These Questions

 

Note:  These questions roughly follow the “Problem Solving” outline given above.

 

a.       Why did the author write this article/book?

b.      What are the main problems or concerns that the author is addressing

c.       What is the main topic or theme of the article/book?

d.      What are some of the core concepts advanced by the author?

e.       What are some of the main points the author is trying to make?

f.       Is there a single word or phrase that captures the overall purpose of book/article?

g.      How does the book/article “fit in” within the context of previous research or writings on this general topic?

h.      Does the book/article extend or expand upon previous research?

i.        Does the book/article contradict previous opinions/research on this topic?

j.        What are some of the main assumptions that the author makes regarding the topic/theme of the book/article?

k.      Are some of the assumptions that the author makes open to question or debate?

l.        What is the “bottom line” conclusion that the author reaches?

m.    How, and/or in what way, does the author feel that this article/book/approach will be important in the future?

n.      What does the author state that still needs to be researched/studied?

o.      Are the author’s conclusions justified based on the research that is being reported?

p.      Are the author’s conclusions/arguments justified and/or supported by other research or writings on the topic?

 

 

 

Critiquing Journal Articles Involving Experimental/Scientific Research

 

9.      Critical Evaluation:  Don’t just accept every statement/assertion the author makes.  Get in the habit of questioning everything you read.

 

10.  Strengths vs. Weaknesses:  When critiquing a research journal article, you will want to provide your opinion regarding the strengths versus weaknesses of the research that was undertaken, and/or the conclusions that were reached.  For  articles that involve scientific experiments, you might want to critically question some of the following:

 

a.       Representativeness of the sample:  The best scientific studies typically involve: A sufficiently large number  subjects, who constitute a representative sub-sample of the population being studied, selected on a random basis, and assigned to different “treatment groups” on a random basis.

 

 

 When critiquing experimental research, ask yourself:  “How were the subjects chosen for inclusion in the experiment?”  “Was the selection unbiased?”  Were a sufficient number of subjects involved in the research?   Are the subjects that were selected representative of the general population being studied?

 Some factors you might want to consider when assessing the representativeness of the sample are:

--Are both males and females included in the subject pool?
--Christians vs. non-Christians
--denominational affiliation
--age of the subjects
--history of church-going

b.      Sample Size:  Is the sample size sufficiently large to draw the conclusions the author is making? Do the findings need to be confirmed/replicated in future studies involving a larger subject pool, or a more diverse subject population?

 

c.       Research Design:  Is the overall design of the research study faulty, or open to criticism?   A scientific experiment typically involves: an hypothesis; independent variables; dependent variables, subjects, control groups (including a placebo group), and different treatment groups

 

d.      Double-blind Research:   In “double-blind” research, the subjects in the experiment and the person providing the “treatment,” are both “blind” as to the true nature of the treatment that is being provided.  This is done so as to avoid the possibility of bias.  Ask yourself, “Did the research design adequately control for potential experimental bias?”

 

e.       Single-case Studies:  In general, “single case” studies, and so-called “testimonials” provide the “weakest” forms of support for a particular hypothesis.

 

f.       Meta-analysis:  This type of research study involves combining and analyzing the results of a large number of scientific studies on a particular topic.  This type of study is powerful, and results provide one of the most effective ways to determine cause and effect relationships among variables.

 

g.      Experimental versus Correlational Research:  In general, research involving controlled experimentation is considered to be more “powerful” than research based solely on correlational studies.

 

 

h.      Length of the Study:  Did the research involve studying subjects over a sufficiently long period of time to support the conclusions the author has reached?  Was there any long-term research conducted to determine if the results/findings of the initial research “stood the test of time?”

 

i.        Statistical Errors:  A great number of published articles in the social sciences contain statistical errors.  If you spot any errors, you can point them out in your critique section.  If you feel that the overall statistical analysis was incorrect, then you can point this in the critique.

 

Critiquing a Scholarly Book

11.   For scholarly books that do not involve the author’s own scientific research, you might want to critique some of the following:

 

a.       Statement of the Problem: Did the author clearly state the nature of the problem that is to be examined or explored?

b.      Stylistic Critique:  Was the book clearly written?  Was the “language-level” appropriate?  Was the book organized in a way that facilitated understanding the points that were being made?  Were there charts/graphs or other heuristic “tools” that helped clarify the points the author was trying to make?

c.       Knowledge of the Subject Area: Did the author demonstrate a good grasp of the subject area, including the “history of the problem” and the “current state of knowledge?”  Did the author provide sufficient research to back up his/her points?  Were appropriate examples and/or illustrations given by the author?  Were the examples/illustrations and/or case studies helpful?

 

d.      Lack of Original Research:  Determine whether the author incorporated some of his/her own original research, or whether the author mainly relied upon the research of others to support his/her points.  If the author relied on research from others, what was the quality of the research utilized?  Did the author utilize a sufficient amount of research to support his/her argument or conclusions?

 

e.       Faulty Assumptions:  Did the author make some “faulty underlying assumptions” regarding the topic under study, or the argument (i.e., thesis) he/she was trying to make?  Remember, try not to accept every statement or assertion the author makes.

  

 

f.       Questionable Conclusions Reached:  Did the author provide sufficient evidence for the conclusions that were reached?  Are there some conclusions that you feel were definitely unsupported?  Is the “verdict still out” with regard to certain conclusions that were made?  Did the author do a good job of “making his/her argument and providing support for his/her points? 

 

g.      Acceptance in the Academic Community:  Are the author’s conclusions controversial?  Have his/her conclusions been questioned by other scholars?

 

h.      Outdated Publication:  What is the date of publication of the textbook?  Is the textbook “out-of-date?”  If any research is cited in the text, is it modern and up-to-date (within the last 5 years)?

 

The Process of Developing a Summary or Critique

12.   Begin with “Bullet Points”:  Begin by generating a list of bottom-line points you may want to include in your Summary and/or Critique.  Try to put these points in your own words.  Here are some examples:

 

--Garzon’s article focuses on problems associated with incorporating scriptures from the Bible into counseling sessions

--The article is not a research article, per se.  It is not based on any scientific experiments.

--A theoretical case study is utilized to illustrate how to incorporate the Bible into different treatment modalities

 

13.  Develop Paragraphs:  After you have made a list of “bullet points,” begin to arrange or rearrange your points into basic paragraphs.   Paragraphs should contain only one main topic, together with supporting statements.  If you start a new topic, you should start a new paragraph.  Please carefully read: “Meet the Paragraph.”

 

14.  Develop a Theme: As you organize your “bullet points” into paragraphs, try to develop a “theme” or organizing principle that will be applicable to the entire Summary section or the Critique section.  For example, you may want to utilize the “Problem Solving” theme that was outlined in the table presented earlier in this document for your Summary section. 

 

You could also develop a theme based on the temporal order in which topics are covered:  “At the beginning of the book, the author addresses the topic of forgiveness as it applies to forgiving others.”  “Later on, the author switches his focus to the topic of self-forgiveness (i.e., forgiving oneself)

 

15.  Don’t Write Sentences until You Know What You are going to Say:  Don’t just start writing and hope that everything in your paper will make sense and “hang together.”  Don’t start writing the actual sentences of your document until you know what points you are going to make, and the order in which you are going to make those points.  Stated differently, before you start writing sentences, you should have a clear idea of “where’ you are going and “what” you are going to say (i.e., what points you are going to make, and in what order are you going to make those points).

 

16.  Use Transitions: Every sentence in each paragraph should clearly relate to every other sentence.  In addition, every paragraph in your Summary or Critique should clearly relate to every other paragraph.  As you develop the logical “flow” of your Summary or Critique, use transitions so that the reader knows “where you are going” and how each paragraph relates to the previous paragraph, and to subsequent paragraphs. Below are some examples of transitions.  (For additional transitional words/phrases, see Appendix I.)

 

Campbell (2011) opens his book by defining…
Turning elsewhere, …
Along similar lines,...
The author concludes by stating…

 

17.  Begin Your Summary or Critique with a Broad-based, General Statement:  The first sentence of a document is often the most difficult to write.  It introduces the reader to the scope of what will be covered in the remaining paragraphs of the Summary or Critique you are writing.  In a sense, the remainder of the document flows logically from this opening sentence.  Here are some examples.

--Garzon (2005) discusses critical issues regarding the use of scriptures in Christian counseling and provides practical examples of how therapists can effectively incorporate scriptures into the counseling process to benefit clients. 

--The topic of forgiveness is ubiquitous in modern day society.

    --Tan’s (2007) article entitled, “The Use of Prayer and Scripture in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy,” focuses on how to effectively integrate Christian concepts and disciplines into traditional secular counseling.

                           

 

Appendix I

Some Transitional Words/Phrases:
Compiled by Dr. Brian Campbell, 2014

 

Openings:  “To begin with,”  “Initially,”  “At the onset,”  “For a time,”  “In the beginning,”  “At the outset,”  “To start with,”  “There have been several different approaches,”

Following On:  Subsequently,”  “Later on,”  “It follows that,”  “Along the same lines,”  “Along somewhat different lines,”  “Along similar lines,”  “Next,”  “Also,”  “A little while later,” “Immediately after,”  “Immediately thereafter,”  “Over the following years,”  “In subsequent years,”  “Subsequently,”   

Quantitative: “For the most part,”  “Overall,”  “In general,”  “Generally speaking,” “In most instances,”

Similarity:  “Similarly,”  “In a similar fashion,”  “Likewise,”  “Also,”  “Along similar lines,”

Difference:  “Along somewhat different lines,”  “Taking a different approach,”  “Taking a somewhat different approach,”  “Stated somewhat differently,”  “Stated another way,”

Time:  “At the same time,”  “During the same time,”  “Sometime thereafter,”  “Not long thereafter,”  “Very soon,”  “A short time later,” “Shortly thereafter,”  “Almost immediately thereafter,”  “Suddenly,”  “Without hesitation,”  “Next,”  “Afterwords,”  “Later on,”  “In the meantime,”  “Earlier on,”  “Prior to this time,”  “Thereafter,”  “From then on,”  “From that point on,”

Contrast:  “In sharp contrast,”  “In marked contrast,”  “By way of contrast,” “On the other hand,”  “On the contrary,”  “However,”  “Nevertheless,”

In General:  “In general,”  “Generally speaking,”  “Overall,”  “For the most part,”

Clarification: “By way of clarification,”  “To clarify,”  “Stated somewhat differently,”  “By way of further explanation,”  “In other words,”  “That is,” “That is to say,”

Consequence:  “As a consequence,”  “As a result,”  “Consequently,”  “Therefore,”  “Thus,”  “Thereafter,”

Examples:  “For example,”  “By way of example,”  “By way of illustration,”  “For instance,”

Specifics: “In particular,”  “Specifically,”  “In precisely the same fashion,”

Illustration: “Therefore,”  “Thus,”  “For example,”  “For instance,”  “In particular,”  “Specifically,”  “Namely,”  “By way of illustration,”  “To illustrate this point,”

In Addition:  “In addition,”  “Furthermore,”  “Moreover,”  “By way of further explanation,”  “Lastly,”  “Secondly,”  “It follows that,”  “To further support this point,”  “To extend this line of reasoning,”

Comparison:  In comparison,”  “By way of comparison,”  “Comparatively speaking,”  “In other words,”  “In a similar fashion,”  “Similarly,”  “Along similar lines,”  “In marked contrast,”

Emphasis:  Surprisingly,”   “Above all,”  “Truly,”  “Clearly,”  “Not surprisingly,”  “Above all else,”  “Most importantly,”   “Without any hesitation,”  “Without exaggeration,”

Concession:  “Conceding this point,”  “Acknowledging this position,”  “In agreement,” “Taking this point into account,”

Summary/Conclusion:  In summary,”  “By way of summary,” “Taking everything into consideration,”  “Looking back over these various approaches,”  “In conclusion,”