Before my students submit their first essay, I introduce them to the idea of synthesizing their research. I open the discussion with a description of how I usually see research used in student essays: a paragraph making a point with one source used for an example; another paragraph making another point with another source used for an example; and so on, which each paragraph referring to only one source and most sources only used once in on paragraph. This description often elicits nodding from students, agreeing that is how they use sources.
‘Using your sources that way works,’ I say, ‘But it isn’t very sophisticated and you aren’t getting much out of your sources this way. Today we are going to practice synthesizing your sources.’
Synthesis is joining the conversation.
Synthesis, I explain, is like having a conversation. Each of your sources is a person sitting a table in a café and they are talking about your topic. When you write your essay, you are pulling up a chair to their table and joining the conversation. Think about how you have conversations with a group of people: does each person speak in a monologue before passing the topic on to the next person at the table?
No. Instead, people talk over each other, interrupting each other, adding on to someone’s earlier point with an example of their own, or countering what someone said with an opinion. During a conversation, each person’s idea is woven in with the others’. That is what synthesis looks like when writing an essay.
I then organize the students into groups of four or five and give them this exercise:
Choose an issue on campus that all of you have an opinion about.* DO NOT DISCUSS YOUR OPINIONS YET. Once you have selected a topic, spend five minutes writing about it.
When everyone in your group is finished writing, choose one or two people to be the note-takers for your group. Then take turns reading your opinion aloud. The note-takers will pay attention to any repeated ideas, points of agreement, points of disagreement, and anything else that seems noteworthy – these are the “themes” of your conversation – and keep track of who said what. Review the notes as a group after everyone has finished reading.
Now organize the notes. You may find it helpful to use a chart:
Now begin to think about how you would translate your chart into writing. For instance, you could write a paragraph about each person’s ideas summarizing their main points OR you could write a paragraph about each theme/idea and include all five points of view in each paragraph.
The first option is simply summarizing. The second option is SYNTHESIS.
Synthesis writing is more sophisticated and better demonstrates that you know what each source says about the subject and how the source relates to the other sources. Spend a few minutes writing a paragraph about each point in your group’s topic.
This exercise works well to introduce the meaning of synthesis and put it into practice. After discussing their results, I then provide them a Synthesis Matrix to use for their essay’s sources. The rest of the class period is spent filling out the synthesis matrix for their essays, and I wander around the room helping students to identify themes in their sources for their topics.
After introducing this exercise into my lesson plans, I have seen a dramatic improvement of how sources are used in my students’ essays.
* After a few times doing this exercise, I’ve banned the topic ‘parking on campus’ because inevitably every group chooses it. I’m tired of hearing people complain about parking and I’d rather them think of a more creative topic to discuss.