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What is synthesis in graduate writing, and why does it matter? When graduate scholars synthesize sources, they paraphrase ideas, evaluate the credibility of sources and make critical connections as they lay the foundation for their own research and advance their fields.

Synthesis, also called intertextual integration, is an essential skill that Ph.D. students should have for composing graduate program milestones—such as literature reviews, prelim exam papers, theses and dissertations—allowing novice scholars to develop a deep understanding of research in their fields and to build confidence as emergent experts.

Beyond its utility as an academic exercise, the ability to distill and communicate insights from multiple sources to different audiences is crucial as today’s graduate students pursue careers across academic and industry sectors, where information literacy, accuracy and clear communication drive technical innovation. By engaging in the written synthesis of sources, graduate learners are cultivating an essential skill of 21st-century literacy.

Despite the recent advent of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, graduate students still struggle with effective synthesis skills. Multilingual international writers, for instance, face the distinct challenges of reading, interpreting and writing about sources in an additional language, while all graduate writers must cope with critically evaluating and distilling information as emergent members of the scholarly community.

For graduate students, AI tools might be helpful to draft an outline of a review paper, but those tools cannot replace the iterative cognitive processes of evaluating and integrating multiple texts—nor can they replace instruction that actively models those thinking processes. Graduate writers can benefit from activities that slow down the process of synthesizing literature, break it down into manageable steps and visualize what it means to draw connections across multiple sources.

In this column, we share insights from a fall semester webinar that we presented on approaches to teaching the synthesis of literature that elucidates and scaffolds these processes for graduate learners. Our audience was members of the Consortium on Graduate Communication, an international association whose members provide professional development in written, oral and multimodal communication for graduate students. Our talk was one of the most-attended webinars for the organization that semester, and members, fellow instructors and leaders in graduate writing instruction were grateful for a practitioner-oriented session devoted to this topic. One participant even called our session inspiring.

We focus on one top-down and one bottom-up approach to teaching the synthesis of literature to graduate writers. The first approach, synthesis matrix, has been implemented in graduate-level writing courses where students write research papers. The second and complementary approach, grammar of synthesis, has been used in short workshops and as supplemental instruction in writing groups and writers’ retreats.

Synthesis Matrix

For a given paper, students have reviewed the assignment sheet, chosen their topics and begun to gather sources. In preparation for a class on literature synthesis, students are asked to complete a journal article matrix. The first column lists a set of 10 critical questions for students to answer regarding their chosen articles. These include:

  1. What is the topic/purpose of the article?
  2. What is already known about this topic? Where are the gaps in knowledge on this topic?
  3. What are the research hypotheses/questions?
  4. How are the hypotheses or research questions tested/answered?
  5. What (and how) are two (or more) theories used to motivate (or set up) the research questions?
  1. What is the research site? Who/how many are the research participants?
  2. What are the sources of data collection? How are the data analyzed?
  3. What are major findings? What are the examples used as evidence to support the claims?
  4. What are the study limitations? What are the suggestions for future research?
  5. Any implications of the findings?

In each column to the right, students should answer those questions as fully as possible based on one article. Students are asked to include a minimum of four articles.

On the day of class, the teacher has their own example matrix as well as a separate document with an outline and a synthesized paragraph based on the outline. The teacher first states that while some fields, such as computer science, may focus on reviewing methods, it is typical to initially concentrate on major findings. By projecting the example matrix and writing on the board, the teacher demonstrates how to look for themes or patterns across the articles’ findings.

Specifically, findings from the first article are written on the board, along with an in-text citation for each point, and subsequent findings are added to this framework. The teacher elicits possible categories for findings from students and adds those to the board. The example outline is then projected, and the teacher guides students through comparison with the themes on the board in relation to the main claim in the example outline.

Next, students create a similar outline based on an analysis of their own matrix. Afterward, the teacher walks students through a synthesized paragraph based on the example outline. The teacher highlights how the paragraph starts with an overall claim. Next, the teacher explains that the level of detail about each study depends on its function, such as serving as a key paper or as part of a group of studies on related aspects. Finally, the teacher shows how the author indicates relationships between/among studies (such as through the word “similarly”) and sometimes includes their own interpretation (by saying something like “That is, …”).

For homework, students are asked to write their own synthesized paragraphs based on their outlines, which are reviewed in the following class. Students have shared in class or commented in course evaluations how much more confident they feel in writing a literature review after this lesson.

The Grammar of Synthesis, or Paraphrasing With Style

Complementing the literature synthesis matrix, which models the structure of synthesis, the grammar of synthesis involves recognizing and deploying appropriate ways of integrating literature on the sentence level through paraphrases. These activities model what synthesis looks like in a document written for an audience in a specific academic discipline or discourse community, such as a review paper, chapter or article: a good literature synthesis always gives readers context about the original sources, but when is it appropriate to cite authors by name or use passive voice? For instance, do you write that “Smith et al. (2023) investigated novel characterization techniques,” or that “Novel characterization techniques were investigated (Smith et al., 2023)”?

Drawing on the cross-disciplinary genre work of scholars like John Swales, grammar of synthesis activities make graduate writers aware of the sentence-level choices available to them when paraphrasing sources. These activities include the social annotation of model texts and close reading of articles from one’s own discipline to help learners distinguish the lexical and structural features of paraphrases.

For example, author-oriented paraphrases emphasize researchers’ discoveries, use active voice verbs and may state the names of authors. In contrast, results-oriented paraphrases use passive voice and impersonal expressions to summarize trends in the state of the art, often by recapping multiple sources in a single sentence. Resources such as the University of Adelaide’s reporting verb list likewise help learners notice the differing connotations of verbs that convey neutral tones or verbs that subtly project a researcher’s own evaluation of sources.

With these activities and resources, learners can understand how verb choice and sentence structure impact the meanings of paraphrases within a paragraph and within the broader contexts of writing in their disciplines. As graduate learners notice how effective sentence-level strategies of synthesis vary across disciplines, they can make more informed choices about the strategies they incorporate into writing for their own discourse communities. In contrast to hastily generating AI prose that sounds generic, graduate writers who slow down to appreciate the grammar of synthesis in authentic texts, such as published review papers and journal articles, can cultivate distinct writerly voices that synthesize sources for audiences in their fields.

To sum up, these activities for instructing graduate learners in literature synthesis are useful because they model the thinking processes involved in intertextual integration—mapping salient themes in the literature, drawing connections among texts and producing a written account in one’s own voice for a specific academic audience. Most important, these activities underscore that effective synthesis needs to be explicitly taught, especially for novice graduate writers who are new to genres that require adept integration and evaluation of multiple sources.

Collectively, the synthesis matrix and grammar of synthesis activities support graduate writers by modeling the process of synthesis while allowing them to work with authentic materials from their disciplines. Further, by highlighting what differentiates the merely passable paraphrase from a thoughtful literature synthesis created within and for a scholarly community, explicit instruction in synthesis empowers graduate learners as knowledgeable, ethical researchers and equips them with transferable skills for success in their degree programs as well as careers in academia and beyond.

Katie Homar is the director of academic and engineering writing support at North Carolina State University. She has created and led writing and professional development training for graduate students and postdocs. Stacy Sabraw is a lecturing fellow with the English for International Students program at Duke University. She has developed a writing course for social sciences and one for STEM fields as well as led an advanced writing course for the past three years.

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