Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.
What are Generalization and Synthesis?
Ms. Campbell is a seventh grade humanities teacher who has noticed that although her students are strong readers and writers, they sometimes seem to struggle when it comes to really learning from their reading or thinking deeply about ideas. Ms. Campbell consults a few experts who help her to see that her students are struggling with the complex cognitive processes known as generalization and synthesis.
Generalization deals with starting with one idea or fact and extrapolating to other big ideas. A student who can generalize, for instance, might read an article about a group of teenagers who get in trouble for smoking and infer that smoking in general causes problems for teenagers.
Synthesis refers to bringing information together from a variety of sources and forming new ideas about the topics. A student who is good at synthesizing can watch several videos on climate change, for instance, and come up with a summary statement that brings together different points of view. Ms. Campbell sets out to discover how to help her students develop skills at generalizing and synthesizing.
Beginning With Assessment
As with so many aspects of teaching, Ms. Campbell realizes it is important to begin this work by seeing what her students are already capable of.
She assesses their ability to generalize by giving them several short reading passages about specific topics. She then asks them to write generalities about these same topics. For instance, after they have read a paragraph about a baseball player, she has them write things they learned about baseball generally.
To assess their capacity to synthesize, Ms. Campbell shows her students a video about a topic, then reads aloud a passage about a related topic, and then has them independently read a third passage on the topic. She asks her students to write an essay bringing together the information from these different sources. When Ms. Campbell reads these essays, she is able to determine which of her students need the most help with these cognitive processes.
The Importance of Note-Taking
Ms. Campbell realizes that at the root of generalizing and synthesizing lies the more fundamental and concrete skill of determining main ideas and supporting details in a text or presentation. She therefore orients several direct lessons toward note taking, showing her students how their notes might document important aspects from things they read or learn.
By learning how to find what is important in text, students then have evidence to draw on when they generalize and have a trail to look back over when they want to synthesize. Ms. Campbell teaches her students to write a box around each main idea they want to take notes on, then use bullet points to organize notes around related details. She gives her students many weeks to practice their note-taking skills using a variety of texts.
Bringing Different Sources Together
Ms. Campbell teaches her students that good readers look at the ways their notes on different texts might support or detract from each other. She teaches her students to look back over their notes and use colored pencils to highlight information or concepts that loosely fit into similar categories.
This provides her students with visual support as they begin to synthesize and figure out the way these different kinds of sources do or do not fit together. Once Ms. Campbell's students have looked back over their notes, she also has them practice writing one sentence at the bottom of each page that summarizes their findings; this is a way to practice succinctly and clearly generalizing.
Projects and Interdisciplinary Work
By giving her students chances to work on long term projects or do work that is interdisciplinary (bringing together ideas and skills from different subject areas), they become better able to generalize and synthesize.
Projects require students to bring together knowledge and skills they might otherwise see as unrelated, and interdisciplinary work shows students how to generalize sustaining ideas from what might otherwise seem specialized details.
Some ideas Ms. Campbell has found particularly useful include:
- collaboration with teachers from other disciplines to develop interdisciplinary units of study
- field trips and virtual field trips that require students to use skills they have learned in different classes
- dramatic productions or creative writing projects that access knowledge about different content areas
- visual arts projects that are oriented toward showcasing students' knowledge or ideas
- letting students plan their own lessons or units of study for younger children
Generalizing and synthesizing are complex processes that must be learned slowly over time and require great support. Begin by assessing your students' ability to generalize, or draw big ideas out from details. Then assess their capacity to synthesize, or bring together different ideas. Teach your students the importance of note-taking and give them opportunities to work with their notes. Use projects and interdisciplinary work that brings different subject areas together as much as you can.
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