SYNTHESIZING INFORMATION:

A Model That Works for Everyone

Carolyn R. Johnson

Associate Librarian

Arizona State University West

BACKGROUND:

Here is a typical research assignment:

Prepare a 10-page paper on the topic 'X' using at least five different sources of information. Use MLA style, double spacing, one inch margins, and put your footnotes at the end of the report with the bibliography. (This is usually followed by a brief lecture on plagiarism). Faculty and librarians have not paid enough attention to the important part of research assignments, namely, how to evaluate, synthesize, and organize the information from "five different sources" into an original, logical, and cohesive report. Students either figure out how to do this on their own, or they never really understand how to synthesize and interpret information from their own unique points of view. Consequently, very few students actually enjoy doing research, and many are tempted to plagiarize the work of others.

OBJECTIVE:

In this session students work with information that they analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and organize, working alone and in small groups. They practice strategies for synthesizing and organizing information that can be adapted for other situations (e.g., drawing consensus in group discussions, synthesizing information for group reports, finding trends of thought after a "brainstorm" session). The methods used in this model can also be used to synthesize other kinds of information: drawing consensus in group discussions; finding trends of thought after a brainstorm session; and synthesizing information for group reports.

FORMAT:

The participants, as "students," are seated in groups. Each has a packet of materials for the session. The instructor introduces the sessionís objectives and demonstrates skills that will be used later in the groups. The students work individually and in groups using the skills practiced earlier to evaluate, synthesize, and organize information. Group sharing, a conclusion by the instructor, and individual evaluations of the exercise conclude the session.

INTENDED AUDIENCE:

TEACHERS AND FACULTY who are looking for practical ways to teach critical thinking skills, and/or looking for ways to integrate timely, real-world information (from the Internet, newspapers, magazines, etc.) into their classes, and/or looking for ways to take some of the dread out of research reports. No experience in cooperative learning is needed, just a willingness to be "the guide on the side."

LIBRARIANS who are looking for practical ways to teach critical thinking skills, and/or looking for ways to integrate varied information sources (from the Internet, newspapers, magazines, etc.) into their library instruction classes, and/or how to show students what itís like to work with timely, interesting, relevant information, then how to find it. No prior experience with cooperative learning is needed, just a willingness to let students discover for themselves.

BENEFITS OF THE MODEL:

  1. The model uses higher order thinking skills, critical thinking (analyzing, evaluating, organizing, synthesizing). Class stays awake, attentive while using higher order thinking skills.
  2. The model requires no teaching or lecturing, just directing and guiding teams and individuals.
  3. A variety of learning styles, including kinesthetic, visual, and verbal, is featured.  Students can explore learning styles that "boost" their predominate learning style.
  4. Students use and evaluate information from different sources (statistics, scholarly journals, reference books, Internet), "try them out," and get a sense of their content.
  5. Students become aware of useful library information resources, and compare these to "The Web."
  6. Using handouts instead of actual library materials assures everyone is on the same page, has the same input of information (control). Differing interpretations (highlighting, clustering, naming, sequence) lends variety.
  7. Highlighting and making Post-Its causes students to read the article twice.  Students highlight articles as they first read them.  As they reread the highlights to make Post-It notes, students realize that some highlighted items are not central to the main ideas of the article, or after reading the whole article they have a different perspective or a better understanding of the main ideas.
  8. Note-taking experience with "Post-It" sized notes, using 3-5 words, causes students to be selective in what they extract from the article to share with others in the exercise.
  9. Post-It sized notes force students to convey thoughts in as few words as possibleó"word economy".  The Post-It notes respresent "stories."  Students explain the stories to others in their group, as needed, while they work through the clustering process.  During this time students are processing concepts and ideas rather than the authors' words.
  10. The clustering method causes students to process the concepts and issues instead of merely paraphrasing the authorís words.
  11. Post-Its can be arranged in any order, not just a traditional outline or list.
  12. The color of the Post-It identifies the source of information or the person who contributed the information, in case there is a need for clarification.
  13. Including the page number on the Post-It makes it easy to correctly cite the source of the concept or data.
  14. Students share their conceptual understanding by discussing their notes rather than passages from the original text.
  15. Differences among group results show there is no one "right" way to extract information and synthesize it.
  16. Differences among group results show that variety is okay--there is less need to have perfect wording of the perfect source, which lessens anxiety and temptation to plagiarize.
  17. The model can be varied to suit classroom setting, resources, size of group, and their level of experience.
  18. Evaluation using Post-Its at the end of the exercise provides a quick means of measuring its effectiveness and identifying areas for improvement.
  19. If students participate in "expert" group discussions of those who all read the same article: