A Synthesis Assignment
David Grover, Brigham Young University–Idaho
For many years, I have used a literature review as the major paper for my junior-level composition course’s unit on synthesis. Its main strength to me is that it is realistic: because many professionals and academics employ literature reviews (formally or informally) in their work, the assignment allows my students to develop synthesis-based skills—library research, source evaluation, source integration, joining in the public or academic discourse, etc.—in a way that is relevant to their majors, even though my school doesn’t have a WID program.
However, in recent semesters I’ve noticed many of my students struggling with the assignment precisely because they are not yet committed to a major or far enough along to appreciate how synthesis works for their field; I work at a teaching university with near-open enrollment, so many of my students do not come from traditional college-ready backgrounds. While considering how I might change my synthesis assignment to better meet my students’ needs, I also encountered recent research that suggests that students cannot effectively distinguish between real and fake news and that confidence in America’s news media is low1. This research corresponded with what I knew of my students: they are typically reluctant to engage in conversations about political topics, chafe at being assigned reading from recent headlines, and often jump to somewhat absurd conclusions about authors and articles based on where they are published. Might I make my synthesis assignment more relevant and also help give my students a better preparation to engage in the public (rather than their fields’ professional) discourse, I wondered?
The result is a major assignment I call the Current Event Coverage Report. It has each student choose a recent event of national interest that has received wide coverage in the public discourse. Then students gather every publication they can find about their event; evaluate the merits, credentials, biases, and failings of each; and write a report about the event and the way it was covered in the news media. The final deliverable has two parts, an annotated bibliography and a report.
The following links will take you to pages explaining the assignment, detailing classroom discussion topics and readings, and presenting samples of student work. The navigation bar at the top of each page includes the same links.
As with a literature review, the Coverage Report allows students to practice synthesis in a realistic and meaningful way. They don’t get to pretend to be scholars in their fields, of course, but they do get to practice being responsible citizens—they participate in the public, rather than the professional, discourse. They get to encounter information “in the wild,” and must struggle with their inability to ever find or read everything related to a topic while still writing knowledgeably about it. They still get to practice evaluating the quality of sources, integrating source material into their writing, and documenting their sources according to a style (I let them choose the style that corresponds to their major). They get to follow their interests (to a degree) without the stress of choosing something related to a major they don’t yet fully understand.
One drawback is that we don’t get to cover library database research methods in this unit, but we still cover it for the final argument paper. Another is that the report itself does not have a real-world audience or application. To combat this we talk in class about how political aides might perform similar synthesizing work to produce briefs meant to quickly inform a busy politician about an issue. Mostly this hasn’t been an issue though—students seem to innately see the value of the intellectual work the report represents to them personally as citizens.
As with any assignment or activity, I am constantly assessing how well this one achieves its aims and modifying it to do better. Currently my focus is on developing some readings (meaning I'm writing my own) that more directly address topics students need to understand to succeed on the Coverage Report. For example, I'm nearly done with a reading explaining what I call the "Journalism Continuum," and next I plan to write a more in-depth treatment of types of media bias complete with examples. I also plan to develop an additional out-of-class assignment to help my students examine media bias more directly on their own as preparation for our class discussion on the topic.
I'll continue to update these pages as I make these changes so that anyone else can use these materials. I also welcome feedback and suggestions from you, anything that can help me further hone these materials. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.