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Skimming articles using the AIC (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion) Method, plus an AIC-> Synthetic Note Template for undergraduates (and graduates!)

Two of my favourite scholars, Dr. Heather Smith and Dr. Eugene McCann (whom I have admired independently for a very long time, even before I became friends with both of them) recently asked me if I had some sort of easy-to-read-and-implement guide and/or template for undergraduate (pre-graduate school, post-grade 9, basically, baccaleaurate candidates) students. Because I am someone who loves helping dear friends (and I need more content for undergraduate students!), I decided to write a Twitter thread and a blog post and develop a template to put my AIC Content Extraction Method to good use and help undergraduate students ask the right questions and create a Synthetic Note based on their AIC skim read.

Highlighting, scribbling marginalia, reading, writing

This blog post walks readers through my own process of skim reading focusing solely on the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion (AIC), asking questions and looking for answers in these sections of the paper, and then drafting a summary (what I call a Synthetic Note), based off my notes from applying the AIC method. I have also included a template in PDF format that should open in a different window and that should be easily downloadable (click on the pop-out window and then from there, download from my Google Drive).

Below you will find my Twitter thread, interspersed with some commentary by me.


There’s another element that needs to be discussed that I’ve been mulling for months now. We need different strategies to read, annotate, take notes, and synthesize different materials. We assign very different types of reading materials (books, articles and book chapters), according to our set learning objectives, and the level that we are teaching (undergraduate, Masters, PhD).

As I went through my template and Rich’s abstract, I realized that there are elements in the abstract that give the reader much more information about the context of the research, why she studied those social movements, etc.

This has two implications that I want to draw here:

As Dr. Hoover- Green indicates in her guide, we need to teach students to look at “signposts” – words that give them a clue about what they are reading. In the sentence: “I show how X phenomenon occurs”, the phrase “I show” does the work of signposting what the author is doing.

… we STILL need to teach HOW TO READ (and how to absorb what we read and make sense of it). From the Abstract, I can make sense of a lot about Rich’s article: it’s on hybrid social movements, looks at Brazil’s AIDS movements and develops a third way of looking at social movements: as federated, distributed, multilevel organizational networks.

HOWEVER… so far, from reading Rich’s abstract I know nothing about her methods, approach to how she conducted this study of federative coalitions, etc. THIS is precisely the reason why I always tell my students to do a quick AIC skim: there are details that escape the abstract, but that you can find elsewhere in the article, usually the Introduction and the Conclusion.

This pair of tweets put together the entire decomposition framework.

Based on this exercise, I created a full template for creating a Synthetic Note based on an AIC quick skim. Includes:

1) Guidance on readings that students should do beforehand so they understand what AIC is all about.
2) A series of questions for each one of the components of AIC
3) A template for students (or any reader) to follow and use to write their Synthetic Note. This template has specific wording that helps them create a narrative when developing their literature reviews.

… included in the example and template. I created the Synthetic Note after running my reading through each element but that is not fully reflected in the Twitter thread, but it is in the final version of the template (that is, there is an intermediate step where I should show each one of the tables with my own notes).

Hope this is helpful! Here is a rundown of my notes and answers to the questions posited in the template.

Now, for a completed example of the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) row for Rich 2020’s article, derived from my AIC content extraction notes/Synthetic Note:

On the note-taking process:

Could I have taken notes in a series of Index Cards, or in my Everything Notebook, or in a Cornell Note? Sure thing. But since I am doing several threads on reading techniques for undergraduates (that can be adapted for graduates), I’m choosing to JUST do one.

HOWEVER… if you need more material on note-taking, in this tweet I link to a lot of my writing on the topic.

Please DO test drive this AIC->Synthetic Note template and let me know if it is helpful to you and/or your students!

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Posted in academia, research, research methods, writing.

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  1. Grant says

    Very interesting. I can see this being very useful for my students. One question: how do you decide what to take from your AIC review and synthetic note and put into your spreadsheet? When you go to write your lit review, do you mainly use the excel spreadsheet or do you go back to your full note?

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