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A Wrinkle in Time...Approaching Synthesis

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In this final blog of the series “Keys to Writing Success in AP® History,” our focus will be on Synthesis.  As mentioned in the previous blog, two of the most confusing parts of the Documents Based Question Rubric, for both students and teachers, is Contextualization and Synthesis.  In that blog, we focused on Contextualization and why it belongs in the introduction of the DBQ.  In this blog, we will examine Synthesis as a skill and why it belongs in the conclusion of the DBQ.  

As we did in the previous blog on Contextualization, let us begin by taking a look at the “recipe” for writing a DBQ from the first blog in this series (Follow the Recipe...Keys to AP Writing).  The model for writing a DBQ teaches students to Contextualize in the introduction and to Synthesize in the conclusion.  Note that in both cases, students must write 2-4 sentences to show these skills.  So it is always best to teach students that Contextualization and Synthesis should be full paragraphs. 

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AP® Essay Model for the DBQ

As you can see from this model, Contextualization and Synthesis (synTHESIS) come in different parts of the essay.  While there is no requirement from the College Board that these skills be placed in a certain part of a student’s essay, students are more successful when they have a clear plan for where to include these skills.  So, the next question becomes why should students ALWAYS include Contextualization in the introduction and Synthesis in the conclusion. The answer is two-fold. First, incorporating these skills into the essay in this way allows us to use the AP® rubric to teach students to be effective writers.  Second, the placement of Contextualization in the introduction and Synthesis in the conclusion reminds students of the purpose of each of these skills and how to differentiate them from each other.

AP® Essay Model for the Long Essay Question (LEQ)Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 9.22.03 PM.png

You will notice that on the DBQ and LEQ model, Synthesis is written this way: synTHESIS.  I emphasize the “thesis” part of the word Synthesis because students are expected to extend part of their thesis to another time period, geographic setting, era, or theme of history not included in the prompt to show mastery of this Historical Thinking Skill.  As you can tell from reviewing the AP® rubric for a DBQ and for an LEQ, Synthesis can be achieved in a number of ways.  However, for my students, I have had more success by teaching them to approach thesis by applying their thesis to a different HISTORICAL PERIOD.  Because the AP® curriculum for US History and AP® European History are divided into historical periods by dates, it is easiest to teach students in these classes to write synthesis by looking for evidence that shows their thesis can be applied to other historical eras.  In looking at the AP® World History curriculum where units of study are thematic, approaching Synthesis by looking at a historical theme not covered in the prompt is the most straight-forward way to approach synthesis.  As with teaching students to always put Contextualization in the introduction and Synthesis in the conclusion, helping students master this complicated Historical Thinking Skill by focusing their efforts on one type of Synthesis can help them be more successful. 

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Difference between Contextualization and Synthesis

Synthesis is the Historical Thinking Skill designed to evaluate the degree to which students can articulate patterns in history through thesis-based arguments.  The idea that students  can see how “history repeats itself” across time, groups of people, nations, and geography.  The application of this skill looks at a student’s ability to generalize an argument in different ways.  To focus on Synthesis, let’s look again at the the skill required of students for this point on the DBQ rubric for the 2016 AP® US HIstory Exam.

Explain the causes of the rise of a women’s rights movement in the period 1940 - 1975.

To effectively illustrate the Historical Thinking Skill of Synthesis on this prompt, students must show how their thesis explaining the rise of women’s rights in this period can also be applied to another time period.  Students could also achieve the Synthesis point on this essay by extending their thesis on the rise of women’s rights to movement to show how similar causes led to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Gay Rights Movement, etc.  One important thing to remember is that students can successfully show Synthesis by extending ONE part of their thesis.  In the “recipe,” I teach students to write a two part thesis.  When they work on Synthesis, they apply one part of the thesis to another time period, era, situation, or geography. 

In the previous blog on Contextualization, we looked at a timeline activity (see below).  To apply this idea in the classroom, have your group of students work with this prompt to create a timeline on the board (see illustration below) and have them use documents and historical evidence to fill in the timeline:

Timeline illustrating events that could be used to CONTEXTUALIZE the 2016 DBQ Prompt

Now, as a class activity to teach synthesis, extend this timeline in each direction (for this prompt, students would focus on periods before 1940, but for other types of DBQ prompts, synthesis could come from before OR after time period in prompt):

In the model above, the yellow timeline indicates application of synthesis.  By utilizing visual evidence in the form of a timeline, students can see that some of the same causes for the rise of the women’s rights movement after 1940 were also influencing women in the eras preceding 1940.  For example, students may have argued that the involvement of women in nontraditional roles in World War II was a cause for the rise of the women’s rights movement.  Looking at the yellow timeline above, students may synthesize that part of their thesis by showing that women in nontraditional roles in the late 19th century in the Settlement House Movement or the early 19th century Second Great Awakening gave rise to calls for women’s rights in the 19th century. 

However you decide to teach the Synthesis as a Historical Thinking Skill, make sure students understand that Synthesis is NOT comparison… It is very tempting for students to simply write how the topic of the question is similar to another topic related to the prompt, but Synthesis is not comparison - these are different skills.  Instead, make sure students understand that Synthesis is about their THESIS… how the argument they make in response to a Document Based Question or Long Essay Question can be applied in a different place, time, or era.

As students make final preparations for success on their AP® exams in history, encourage them to look for patterns across time periods as a way to see synthesis and then apply it in their writing.