Condensing & Summarising

Condensing and summary methods vary depending on the topic, but all involve reducing a large amount of information down into something shorter, for example; notes, images or diagrams. These methods give you a visual summary of a topic that preserves its logical structure and any linkages or inter-dependencies.

The 5 main methods that I will be looking at are: 

  • keywords
  • tree structure
  • spider diagrams
  • mind maps
  • concept maps


Keywords help with memory recall by condensing large amounts of information into a single word or short phrase that is easy to remember. The key to success is to pick a word that unlocks a large amount of information.

Don’t be tempted to highlight too much text. We have all seen, or will have done it ourselves where nearly all the page has been highlighted and we believe everything is important!

Keywords methods

  • read a sentence
  • ask yourself “does it have a key word”?
  • if no read the next sentence, if yes, highlight it or write it down
  • repeat this process for the entire page / notes
  • cover up your full notes and use your keywords only to write down what you can remember – this will show you how effective your keywords are
  • check for effectiveness; immediately, after a few days and after a week to really test your method

Tree structure

Tree structures or diagrams allow us to see all the possible outcomes of an event and calculate their probability. Each root, branch or leaf in a tree diagram represents a possible outcome.

Types of tree diagram include: 

  • relationships
  • family / history tree
  • fault tree
  • organisational chart
  • work breakdown structure – for example with that seen in project management 

As hinted above, a typical decision tree comprises some three main components. These are: 

Root Node

It is the top-level node and represents the ultimate objective or the decision to be made. As expected, this node stays atop the entire structure, and it is from it that all the other elements flow. The manner in which this node is stated definitely has a bearing on the kind of direction that the rest will take.

Branch Node

Branches stem from the roots. They represent the various courses of action that may be taken to solve the given issue at hand. In most cases, they are indicated by the use of the arrow lines. Depending on the exact kind of decision to be made, the branch nodes may also incorporate associated costs.

Leaf Node

Leaf nodes are attached to the branch nodes. They, as we have already stated, represent the possible outcomes for each of the actions taken. These nodes are available in two main kinds. They are the circle nodes that signify the unknown outcomes or chances and the square nodes that indicate the need to make another decision. In pensions it may be that the roots are the main topic and the branches the components that make up that topic for example this is the process tree structure for safeguarded benefits:

You just choose the topic (root), break it into smaller sections (branches), expand the information from the branches (leaves).

Spider diagrams

For essay writing in particular, there is a huge benefit in having a bird’s-eye view of your subject matter. This allows you to look over all that could be said and pick out the most relevant parts, while leaving plenty of mental space for the crafting of a comprehensive and well considered argument. Spider diagrams are an excellent tool for creating an overview and remembering it crisply. They help distil complex topics onto a single memorable page by using a branching spatial organisation, colour and images.

The two primary reasons that spider diagrams are such a powerful tool are; 

  • that they are memorable and that the addition of colours, pictures, and simple keywords creates a spatial structure and 
  • image that is easy for your memory to explore.

Mind Maps

Mind maps help you to generate ideas and make associations. They are a powerful memory aid in an examination because they are visual in nature and show the relationships between component topics within an overall subject area.

They were originated in 1974 by Tony Buzan, where he discusses his influences to Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Joseph Donald Novak in his processing of information.

What it has produced is one of the most used mental recall products used today.

As an example, below is a mind map of the DC Pensions world produced by the Quiet Room (it can be found here):

This technique has a number of advantages: 

  • it enables you to see a large amount of information / thought processing on one page
  • your central idea is clearly stated in the middle of the page
  • you can show connections between key concepts
  • additional information can be added easily
  • the open ended nature of the pattern means that you may be able to make new connections

Concept Maps

The final condensing or summarising method I have identified is the concept map. 

This is a way of representing relationships between ideas images or words in the same way that a road map represents the locations of highways and towns, or a circuit diagram would show the workings of an electrical appliance. In a concept map,  each word or phrase connects to another, and links back to the original idea, word,  or phrase. As such they are a way to develop logical thinking and study skills by revealing connections and helping you see how individual ideas form a larger picture. Concept maps were developed to enhance meaningful learning in the sciences. A well-made concept map forms from a clearly defined “focus question”. Research has shown that because concept maps are constructed to reflect organisation of the declarative memory system, they facilitate meaningful learning for those who create and use them.