School Library Monthly/Volume XXVII, Number 8/May-June 2011
A Visual Approach: Teaching Synthesis
by Joy McGregor
Joy McGregor, B.Ed, M.Ed., Ph.D. is a retired Senior Lecturer and current adjunct Senior Lecturer, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga NSW Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Humans synthesize whenever they see links between ideas they have gleaned from other sources (Jamieson 2004). Our brains operate by seeing patterns and trying to make linkages. As students learn about a topic through creating a text-based presentation, they might have varying conceptual understandings of how they can combine their ideas with the information they have found. Consequently, they need to understand the concept of synthesis and be able to apply that understanding to their writing at the same time that they are developing a conceptual understanding of the content of their writing. Synthesis is not easy to do, nor is it easy to teach. It is, however, a natural process in which our brains engage when we are interacting with a topic.
"In today’s environment, action is often needed without personal learning—that is, we need to act by drawing information outside of our primary knowledge. The ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill" (Siemens 2004). We ask students to not only see connections and patterns in information; we then expect them to express these ideas in writing in a way that reveals these patterns. Teaching the concept of synthesis requires going beyond simply instructing students to "write it in your own words." The idea of synthesizing means creating something new (even if at the most basic level it is simply new to the writer), and that requires more than replacing words with synonyms. It requires putting ideas together in new ways, demonstrating depth of understanding about the topic. Deep learning through the inquiry process involves "exploring unknowns," but it also requires students to know how to express their ideas without just regurgitating what they have found (Donham 2010, 8).
What does synthesis look like? Many strategies in the SLM February 2011 "Nudging toward Inquiry" article suggested ways in which students might gain a better understanding of what’s expected of them (11-12). In this article, I am presenting a visual approach to the teaching of synthesis, meant to augment the other suggestions. The visuals provided here were generated as part of a data analysis scheme during a research study, with no expectation that they could be used in teaching.
Erickson describes "concepts" as "cells for categorizing factual examples" (2001, 25). As humans recognize commonalities, they group them into categories, with examples demonstrating these common characteristics. Erickson later speaks of developing conceptual understanding by providing several "examples of the concept showing its attributes" (Erickson 2007, 31). With a concept such as synthesis, students need to understand that there could be a variety of ways in which synthesis might occur. In different examples, synthesis might look different, but it always has certain common attributes. Erickson further states, "Conceptual understanding continues to grow more sophisticated as new examples fill each concept cell" (2007). This article focuses on a comparison of two extremes through a graphical representation that demonstrates at a very basic level how different sources were used. It enhances the learning of a difficult concept by providing images of both good and bad examples. While this tool doesn’t tell students HOW to think about their ideas and information, it gives them an immediate sense of what their product might look like when finished.
McLoughlin and Krakowski claim that visual representation in learning environments "depicts spatial logical and typographical relations between objects and events; [are] non-arbitrary: visual representation may resemble actual object and events; [are] dynamic and continuous, can characterize multiple aspects of ideas and concepts" (2001, 13-15). The visuals provided in this tool can help students understand the logic of synthesis and the relationship between the various information sources and ideas gathered. The examples are developed from actual objects (student papers) and, therefore, can resemble in some important ways the student’s own work. When shown to the class from which these visuals were developed, students were able to identify a number of aspects of the graphics, which through discussion led to an understanding of some of the characteristics of synthesis. Through viewing these graphical images, students were led to a more complex understanding of what was expected when they were asked to use information in writing.
Serendipity through Analysis of Student Papers
In my research, which explored student plagiarism with eleventh grade students, I discovered that many of the student participants either did not know how or chose not to synthesize. This conclusion was based on the way they put together the information they had gathered from various sources. I analyzed their papers by comparing their original sources with the words on their pages. I color-coded any exact word and phrase replications as shown in Figure 1 (the text is blurred to protect student confidentiality).
Figure 1. Color-coding of direct matches (McGregor 2004)
In Figure 1, the purple text directly matched words or phrases in one source and the blue text matched those in a different source. Single words, highlighted in either purple or blue, were probably key words that were part of an entire original phrase or sentence but were separated from the rest of the words by the student’s original phrasing.
As I examined these color-coded papers, I realized that these papers from four different students represented two extremes of a continuum (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Comparison of low and high degrees of direct matches with original sources (McGregor 2004)
The pages reproduced in Figure 2 are fairly typical of the entire paper from which each comes. Students A and B both exhibited a great deal of original text within their pages, with Student A showing evidence of having worked with a few more information sources than did Student B (although B did use multiple sources on other pages). Students C and D showed a very high degree of words and phrases matching the original source identically, with Student C copying from three sources and Student D only one. As I looked at Students A’s and B's work, I suddenly realized that what I was seeing was two different pictures of what we might call synthesis—incorporating thoughts and ideas from multiple sources into one’s own expression in such a way that something new has been created. The concept of creating something original using other sources meaningfully is presented dramatically with these visuals.
Do these graphic images provide an analogy that could be useful? Boden defines an analogical representation as follows:
one in which there is some structural similarity between the representation and the thing represented . To understand an analogical representation is thus to know how to interpret it by matching its structure to the structure of the thing represented in a systematic way . [It] is no accident that many analogical representations are spatial, for vision is our most powerful sense (2004, 113-114).
Perhaps these visuals could be used to visually represent the structure of synthesis systematically.
The Students React
After showing the blurred-out graphic images of the four papers to a school librarian, who had been a highly cooperative partner in the research study, we decided that these visuals could provide a powerful expression of the concept of synthesis to the students themselves. The school librarian invited me to show the attached slides to the class (http://tinyurl.com/VisualizingSynthesis). In this presentation, they saw first how the color-coding worked, then six blurred-out pages from each of the above four papers (Figure 1), and finally the four page comparison (Figure 2). As they viewed each of the papers on the screen, they were asked to describe what they saw. Comments regarding Student A’s paper included an observation that the student had used several different sources, had used a lot of his/her own words. They then observed that Student B had used fewer sources but still used a lot of his/her own words. They laughed at the contrast when they saw Student C's paper and teasingly suggested to each other that they were probably viewing each other’s work ("That must be yours," etc.) but had no doubt that this student had clearly copied from several sources and included very little original material. When Student D's paper was shown, they groaned, the reality being so glaringly obvious. No words were needed. Fortunately, no one was able to actually identify anyone's papers, because not only had the words been blurred out, the documents themselves had been converted electronically to a common format, which meant that even the pages did not look like the original papers they had handwritten or typed in a variety of formats. The four students whose papers were used as examples may have suspected their own work, especially Student D, but no one else, including the teacher or the school librarian, had any idea whatsoever.
The students in the above group did not extract all possible attributes of synthesis. For example, some other characteristics that might be pointed out are the way in which the ideas from different sources are grouped and overlap (shown best by Student A in Figure 2), that Students A and B have elaborated on the ideas from the original sources in their own words, that Students A and B probably understood their topics because they were able to discuss them by incorporating small chunks of externally gained information into their own discussion, and that Students C and D did not include any original thinking as they gathered and presented their information.
The school librarian has since used this presentation with other classes in subsequent years. The visuals have been attention getting, but, unfortunately, it is impossible to determine the degree to which this demonstration has had a positive effect on student writing. In the first classroom demonstration, perhaps that these representations came from that class provided an additional attention-getting mechanism. In future years, however, the visuals continue to be powerful augmentation to the process of helping students write in a meaningful manner.
Is this visual strategy the be-all and end-all? Certainly not. Can these slides be used without teaching and thoughtful discussion surrounding the concept? Definitely not. Will students suddenly know how to synthesize after viewing these slides and participating in a discussion about them? No, but they might find their mental models of how to use the information gleaned from a variety of sources becoming just a little more robust. They might be able to apply a visual impression of some attributes of synthesis to their conceptual understanding of synthesis in a different way than they have applied verbal descriptions, whether oral or written. Teachers and school librarians are invited to download these visuals and use them as part of their toolkit.
Boden, Margaret A. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004.
Donham, Jean. "Deep Learning through Concept-based Inquiry." School Library Monthly 27, no. 1 (Sept-Oct 2010): 8-11.
Erickson, H. Lynn. Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul: Redefining Curriculum and Instruction. 2nd ed. Corwin Press, 2001.
Erickson, H. Lynn. Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom. Corwin Press, 2007.
Jamieson, S. Synthesis Writing. Drew University, 1999. http://www.users.drew.edu/sjamieso/Synthesis.pdf (accessed March 17, 2011).
McGregor, Joy H. "Visualising Synthesis." SlideShare, 2004. http://tinyurl.com/VisualizingSynthesis (accessed March 17, 2011).
McLoughlin, Catherine, and Krzysztof Krakowski. "Technological Tools for Visual Thinking: What Does the Research Tell Us?" Presentation, e-Xplore 2001: A Face-to-Face Odyssey: Proceedings of the Apple University Consortium Conference, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia, September 23-26, 2001. http://auc2.cs.uow.edu.au/conf/conf01/downloads/AUC2001_Proceedings.pdf#page=127 (accessed March 17, 2011).
Siemens, George. "Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age." elearnspace, 2004. http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm (accessed March 17, 2011).