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Be the Synthesis Question 1

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

When it comes to the Argument and Synthesis questions, I tell my students that the best way to learn to answer them is to learn to "think" like them. That is to say, students who understand what goes into the creation of these questions better understand how to assess the tasks posed by them. So, in addition to giving them practice writing to existing prompts and examining student samples from previous Language exams, I also have them go through the process of creating their own prompts, using the questions they have seen as exemplars. In the next two posts, I'll walk through the process I'm using with my own students as they learn about the Synthesis question.

With the Synthesis question in particular, putting together their own prompts gets at several skills that are useful on the exam itself, but also more widely applicable, including research and source evaluation. Also, because they need to be able to see both sides of an argument in order to supply a balanced range of sources, they gain an appreciation for the roles of refutation and concession in argumentation.

I start by having them examine an exemplar Synthesis prompt, without the sources. We analyze the wording of the prompt, discuss the ways in which they can define the parameters of a response, just as we would with an argument prompt. For example, in the practice prompt about the impact of television on presidential elections, what does "positive impact" mean? Does it refer to the impact on voter turnout? On perception of the candidates? On the ability to disseminate a message? Understanding the implications of the wording helps them refine the wording of their own prompts.

Then I ask them to create a wishlist of sources: What kinds of possible sources would they want to be able to address the prompt? I've found that, too often, when my students begin their research, they leap out into the internet or the databases without having thought about what they are looking for. By creating a wishlist, not only do they spend some time thinking about what they want to find in their searches, but they also think beyond the obvious as they begin to expand the parameters of what could be relevant.

Also, knowing that there should be sources to support any position a responder might want to take, they must include in their wishlist potential sources that are balanced: a combination of more or less neutral sources, sources supporting one side, sources supporting an opposing side, and anything in between. We discuss the importance of not overlooking sources simply because they support a position different from your own.

Once they've compiled their wishlists, I give them the actual sources that came with the prompt. They compare those sources to their wishlists, see the range and the balance, and thus already have a pretty good idea why the sources that are supplied were chosen.

The last task we do at this stage is to write up an evaluation of the sources. I divide them into small groups and give each group one source. As a group, they write a paragraph that explains three things about the source:

  • where the is author "coming from" (or, in Lang lingo, assess the ethos of the author)
  • what the salient points of the source are (again, in Lang lingo, the logos)
  • how the source could be used to answer the prompt

They share their evaluations with the class, who can add their observations to what the group has said. They can also discuss which sources might be useful for a variety of arguments, including points that might be conceded or refuted (both of which are valid ways to use a source on the exam's Synthesis question).

So now, they've not only understood the task presented by the prompt, they've evaluated the supplied sources. In an exam situation this process would be much quicker, obviously! But, by understanding the process, they are now more familiar with the skills needed to answer the prompt. They are also ready to begin building their own Synthesis prompt—I'll outline how we do that in my next post.