Writing with Sources: Promoting synthesis with explicit instruction

Daniel Emery

Students often receive specific guidelines on the number and type of materials they are expected to use in research writing or how they should offer attribution and citation. In many courses, these guidelines include explicit instruction on search strategies and information literacy, whether from instructors or librarians. Yet even when students know how to find good sources and can manage the details of citation practice, it can still be challenging to help students see how to synthesize information from multiple sources into a document that advances its own claim. In this tip, we’ll address some reasons why this gap emerges and suggest some strategies to help your students think about how to bring sources together in their academic writing.

Foggy Forest

Reason One: Synthesis means different things in different contexts

As students cross the curriculum, what counts as synthesis changes. Students asked to compare research studies in their agronomy course will need to think synthetically, but so will students who need to align contrasting interpretations in a theater course. 

Even more challenging, different forms of synthetic writing may be required within a discipline. For students writing in a laboratory, the goal may be to connect the observational data recorded in an experiment with a theory or principle from the discipline. Yet when writing a research paper, the goal may be to provide a summary of the state of the field on a particular scientific question and identify what remains unknown. For students in a history course, their goal may be to integrate primary sources to offer an explanation of a past event or era. However, they might also engage with secondary sources that offer competing or contrasting narratives about events and their significance.

In contrast to the more straightforward mechanical task of integrating sources through citation, synthesis implies that the parts being pulled together create a new whole.

Reason Two: Students may rely on weak models for understanding source use

Instructors will often ask students to summarize the content of the sources they have selected, whether informally or as an element of an annotated reference list, but this practice may inadvertently coach students into treating source materials as unrelated artifacts. While such exercises may require students to address the central claim of the source, the main idea, the method of analysis, or conclusions, students are rarely asked about how those artifacts use sources or draw from their own references. 

Similarly, requiring students to collect a specific number of sources (whether 5, 10, or 40) may suggest to students that their writing must prove that they meet this coverage criterion rather than considering the ways that such sources might be used. A student may “write to the rule” of a specific number of sources in the same way they write to satisfy page limits or word counts.  What was intended as a useful heuristic for a thorough analysis (to do this task, you will rely on multiple sources) can become a rigid performance criterion (you will have X number of sources, no more or less).

Practical tips for promoting synthesis:

Ask students to note and describe where synthesis appears in what they read

In its guide for student writers, The Purdue Owl identifies two common forms of synthesis: explanatory synthesis, which functions to acknowledge multiple perspectives and explain the reasoning associated with them, and argumentative synthesis, which uses information from multiple sources to advance a specific claim or argument. In an online environment, social annotation tools can provide a means to mark up a document shared by students and instructors.

When students encounter reading in your course, note the ways that writers marshal source materials and citations. For example, textbooks are often loaded with explanatory synthesis when they describe how concepts in the field have transformed over time. In professional and academic literature, however, it’s very common to find argumentative synthesis, where writers are attempting to advance new claims to supplement or challenge established knowledge.

It can be especially valuable to note that in different sections of the document or segments of the paper, sources may be used for different purposes in addition to synthesis (to establish context, to justify methods, to provide evidence, or to suggest implications). For more information on similar strategies, consult our previous entries on teaching writing through reading and guiding literature reviews.

Ask students to illustrate relationships between source materials they have collected

If students are producing summaries or an annotated bibliography, ask them to literally illustrate the connections between sources. An initial illustration might offer a simple timeline, but more complex versions might involve designing a word cloud of key terms, lines and crosses to illustrate points of connection or disagreement, patterns of citation and reference (who cited whom), or even direct references. The goal here is not to produce a single accurate map of all arguments, but rather to promote the idea that sources are connected and can be combined in different ways for different purposes.

When students submit their initial drafts, ask them to note what function each source serves in their document (providing evidence, offering context, etc). Using skills they have developed in annotating source use in published texts, students can consider when and how their source materials are used. Students could use a highlighting tool to distinguish different uses for sources and to review their own drafts. This visual coding can illustrate if sources are doing too much work to provide background and not enough to engage with their argument, for example. For additional advice on how students can annotate their own texts, download this useful page on Reverse Outlining from Duke University.

Offer examples of synthesis from professional sources or from effective student samples.

Very often, the types of writing that instructors assign to their students mirror the kinds of writing that disciplinary experts use. Look to recent examples of scholarship in your area of research to find moments of useful and productive synthesis. Similarly, if you review student drafts or have previous assignments that illustrate effective source use, obtain permission from your students to share these examples. For more information on using student samples in your class, see our previous tip on annotated examples.

Looking at effective examples can help students to understand why a particular number of sources would be required to produce a successful response to an assignment. Rather than simply indicating a requirement of 5 sources, you might note the functions of particular source materials and the precise ways in which multiple sources are brought together to explain or argue.

Further Support

Our Teaching with Writing Program webpage offers teaching resources to faculty members and instructors across the University of Minnesota system. We also host the popular Teaching with Writing event series each semester, offering workshops, panels, and discussions on writing-related topics. Visit the Writing Across the Curriculum Program webpage and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. You can schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation through our online consultation form.


Good tip, Dan---Thanks! The reasons behind students' struggle to synthesize sources make sense and your teaching suggestions are right on target. I would add two thoughts: First, helping students to recognize the importance of synthesis can also be achieved by presenting them with examples of textual passages that do NOT do a great job of synthesizing (e.g., paragraphs that are entirely stacked with derived paraphrases and direct quotations) and asking them, "What do you think this passage is trying to convey?" (Note: you'll want to clarify that these flawed examples were not written by currently enrolled students.) Second, including explicit grading criteria keyed to the synthetic elements of student texts (rather than cloaking assessment activity under a more general criterion related to research or use of sources) can emphasize its importance and congratulate successes.

You're spot on with regards to making the need for synthesis explicit in writing criteria, and it may be the case that instructors still rely on a sense that "they know good synthesis when they see it." The challenge with an example of failed synthesis is that it can be challenging to understand why a particular example doesn't work. If an instructor demonstrates how a weak attempt at synthesis could be revised to create a strong one, I think students will get a clearer idea about how synthesis works.