Writing with Sources: Early-Semester Activities to Promote Synthesis

Daniel Emery

While students in nearly every upper-division course will be asked to analyze and synthesize information, the meaning of these terms changes with instructional contexts. They may analyze scholarly arguments to make an assertion about the state of knowledge or create a new research question. Students may also analyze results from experimental tests to draw accurate conclusions from measurement, while in another course, they may be tasked with analyzing multiple policies or practices and then designing their own. Given the range of ways synthesis can work in writing, this blog post focuses on strategies for creating explicit description of what synthesis means, and offers some early semester assignments to help prepare students for this complex work. In this post, construction metaphors (“building” or “making” language) provide a helpful vocabulary for writing assignments that promote synthesis.

Preparing the ground

construction workers on scaffolding

Synthesis assignments fall broadly in two groups: explanatory synthesis, where multiple sources are used to create a comprehensive description, and argumentative synthesis, where students are asked to advance a claim based on reasons and evidence. Clarifying your assignment's purpose and audience can help focus students on their writing task. Consider what you notice about writing in your field that succeeds in creating synthesis.

  • Do you prefer broad connections to core issues in the field, or narrowly focused writing that engages key distinctions between core concepts?
  • Does synthesis imply comprehensive coverage of a range of resources, or could it be achieved by using a few sources well?
  • Should material come from academic and scholarly sources, or what else might be fair game?
  • Does synthesis imply reviewing differing ideas impartially, or should evaluation and criticism be a part of the work?
  • Should synthesis stick to the most cited and widely read resources, or include less common perspectives and sources?

As an early assignment, ask students to write brief topic proposals or topic justification assignments that identify the topic, its relevance to the course, and some preliminary thoughts on potential questions about or connections between concepts and ideas. Emphasizing the role of connections among sources is critical here; not merely accumulating resources from multiple sources but seeing and describing their interrelationships.

Gathering materials: Pre-fab or made from scratch?

Students can think and write synthetically using resources selected by their instructors or by conducting their own searches for information. In cases where the task is unfamiliar, starting with shared resources can help students focus on concepts, themes, or issues without adding the challenge of selecting relevant resources. More advanced students may prefer the opportunity to follow their specialized interests and explore a wider literature.

Early assignments with shared resources

Reading responses can be an effective early-semester assignment for engaging with course resources. Faculty can help students understand the content of their reading by offering context (answering those 5 Ws questions) for individual selections, but ask students to think about why certain readings might be offered together or in sequence. Better assignments will move beyond comparison and contrast into connections and implications.

Source grids can also help students to draw connections between readings and resources. For example, in a nursing course, students are asked to produce summaries of course readings and organize them in a table that addresses the population studied, intervention, comparison, and outcome. EBSCO offers a nice summary of PICO questions here.

Early assignments for information-seeking

When students are asked to seek their own information or research their own topics, they will need to work harder to determine the relevance of information and criteria for attention and inclusion. Many instructors already assign online tutorials from the University libraries to help students navigate disciplinary databases and develop research questions. Subject librarians and department liaisons for your college, department, or program are excellent collaborators for designing such tasks.

Information-seeking assignments can include mind maps (using what students already know to suggest search terms), summaries of reference articles, or initial reference lists. In addition, process-oriented assignments like research logs can help students to show their work by documenting their search strategies (databases, keywords, and limiters used).

Additional Resources

Reading and Writing has just published a special issue (December 2022) under the title, Synthesis Tasks: Where reading and writing meet. Read the introduction from the editors.

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages or teaching resources. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting.

Looking to change up writing assignments or grading strategies? Talk to us! We like thinking with faculty members, instructors, and TA/GIs about any and all matters related to teaching with writing in courses across the University curriculum. Got questions about writing assignments and activities, grading writing, providing feedback, or using digital tools? Contact us to schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation.