Teaching Students to Generalize & Synthesize Information

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Teaching students to generalize and synthesize takes time and requires careful thought and planning. This lesson will introduce you to some ideas for working on the development of these important skills with students of all ages.

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.

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