A Guide to Synthesizing Sources
- What is a synthesis?
A synthesis is a written discussion incorporating support from several sources of similar or differing views. This type of assignment requires that you examine a variety of sources and identify their relationship to your thesis.
- Synthesis is used in:
- Analysis papers to examine related theories.
- Ex.: a comparison between the theories of evolution or who shot JFK.
- Research/explanatory papers to incorporate multiple sources.
- Ex.: a look at economic and social effects of proposed legislation.
- Argument papers to compare differing views and support a coherent claim.
- Ex.: Are plagiarism checkers a violation of student’s rights? One side may argue that these companies steal students’ papers while others claim that students agree to have their work archived.
- Business reports to examine differing ideas and blend into a coherent plan.
- Ex.: What are some of the plans to improve Toledo’s waterfront to attract more visitors and increase business opportunities?
- Tips for effective synthesis:
- Establish your purpose to shape the way you want to argue and form your thesis. The thesis is the main claim or idea of your essay.
- Select your sources and become familiar with them so that you can discuss them in relationship to your thesis and supporting argument(s). If you simply quote sources without evaluating them, then the sources will control your paper and your audience may misinterpret the information.
- Develop an organizational plan. Arrange more than just one source per point; multiple sources will increase your credibility. Look at how sources may agree or disagree with one another, and evaluate which source has better logic or more credibility.
- Evaluate or interpret each source, then show the relationship between the sources and your thesis.
- Document each source according to established citation guidelines in the style specified by your instructor (MLA, APA, etc.). This MUST be done if you quote, summarize, or paraphrase a source.
- Strategies for organization:
- Climactic order arranges the most important/persuasive evidence last since this is what is remembered.
- Problem/solution establishes the problem in the introduction, and then offers a few solutions.
- Comparison and contrast
- Summarizes each source and shows their similarities and differences.
- Can move from point-to-point, back and forth between items being compared.
- Analyze the position of each source; you can use these verbs to note the author’s tone:
- MLA- use present tense: Shakespeare writes...
- APA- use past tense: Dr. Bombay affirmed the value...
Taking a more thoughtful approach to reading during your research phase is usually the first step toward creating a successful synthesis, as MIT professor Ed Boyden explains in a Technology Review blog post titled “How to Think”:
“Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you're reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff. That way, you will always aim towards understanding things at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative.”
By reading actively, students will be better able to recognize the crucial connections between ideas that form the basis for synthesizing.
Students must learn to approach their research with synthesis in mind. Arizona State University offers step-by-step instructions for conducting research in a way that’s conducive to synthesizing information. Not surprisingly, one of the first steps involves highlighting key facts and ideas while reading, to aid in the cross-reference of sources later on.
ASU provides additional instruction for educators interested in using this particular model for synthesis.
One of the most straightforward and comprehensive guides to writing syntheses comes from Michigan State University. Its “Introduction to Syntheses” article covers the purpose of syntheses, types of syntheses, and techniques for writing synthesis essays. This article is a must-read for older students, particularly the section “How to Write Synthesis Essays.”
According to the College Board, one exercise used in AP English courses to emphasize synthesis is the researched argument paper. “Researched argument papers remind students that they must sort through disparate interpretations to analyze, reflect upon, and write about a topic. When students are asked to bring the experience and opinions of others into their essays in this way, they enter into conversations with other writers and thinkers.” Download the course description for more extensive information on researched argument papers, and other exercises that can be used to teach advanced aspects of synthesis.
Synthesis for Young Students
Into the Book, a site that aims to help teachers educate students on reading comprehension strategies, has aggregated links to help students learn synthesis skills. The “Teacher Background” links provide teachers with ways of thinking about synthesis that could aid them in their classroom instruction. Note that the “Key Concept: Synthesis” link has moved to a new address. The site has an interesting graphic organizer that students can fill out while reading, to make identifying connections in the text a less abstract activity.