Group synthesis task in a workshop on academic writing

Students studying and socialising in a room

This post is authored by Mariam Ghorbannejad, Learning Developer based at King’s Academy. She worked alongside Doctor Laura Gibson, Lecturer in Digital Content Management Education, who runs the Introduction to Digital Asset and Media Management module on the MA in Digital Asset and Media Management course. 


Introduction to Digital Asset and Media Management is a 20-session module with 110 students. Laura and I collaborated to devise and deliver a series of two two-hour embedded sessions on academic literacy skills; the first focused on Critical Reading (including the ACT UP model of evaluating sources) and the second was on Academic Writing. The latter session centred on synthesis. In this two-hour session, groups of students worked together to synthesise two extracts of sources from their discipline. They drafted the synthesis, then wrote it up on large (A3) sheets of paper. In the plenary, I read out some of the groups’ syntheses so other groups could provide their thoughts and constructive feedback on them. 

Based on my experience, I have found writing tasks are less daunting when students work in groups. Scrivener (2005, p. 194) notes preparatory writing steps such as selecting and sequencing ideas and co-writing sections of text in groups is effective use of class time. I formed groups with as diverse a range of nationalities as possible to help learners develop more multicultural perspectives and awareness (Caruana, 2011). I observed this mixing encourages the use of English in discussions which positively influences linguistic development including fluency and learner confidence in their ability to express themselves. 

Why did you introduce the Academic Writing session?

Laura and I met initially to discuss the needs of students in the cohort, the curriculum and the format of assessments in the module. Following this discussion, we both agreed on the foci of the two embedded academic literacy sessions. The first included activities to guide students in their approach to critical reading whilst the second was on academic writing with an emphasis on paraphrasing and synthesis. As a Learning Developer with a background in English for Academic Purposes, I designed the session and group synthesis task based on an understanding of the educational background of the students, their previous experience of paraphrasing, synthesis and British academic conventions and Laura’s input and expertise on the nature of writing within the field of Digital Humanities as well as her selection of suitable source extracts.  

Students, both home and international, often find academic writing challenging and there seems to be an assumption amongst some academics/educators within higher education that learners possess higher order skills such as synthesis on entry. It is important, though, to avoid these kinds of assumptions to ensure we are as inclusive as possible and provide every learner with the tools they need to succeed on their course. 

When asked what they hoped to get out of the session, one student responded, ‘I’d learnt some English Academic writing in my undergrad, and I hoped this would reinforce skills I’d learnt during that.’ Another commented, ‘In my previous studies, the exams were nearly always oral. The written ones were a very different structure, so I needed more practical exercises and insight into these kinds of academic skills here in UK.’ 

How did you set it up?

This Academic Writing session was held towards the end of November, a few weeks after Reading Week in Term 1. Laura had got to know the students quite well by this stage through their induction, weekly lecture and seminar participation and discussion. This helped inform my planning of the session as I was able to tailor it to the needs of the students in the cohort. As the first 4,000-word summative essay was due in January 2023 (early in Term 2), the session was introduced early enough for students to begin drafting their assignment but with ample time afterwards to allow for processing of knowledge and application of the skills introduced/reviewed and practised. 

I planned the session to include the features of academic writing, the difference between descriptive and analytical writing, the definition of a synthesis and the features of it, a step-by-step synthesis guide and some synthesis writing practice. 

We decided to opt for face-to-face delivery as this allows for individual conversations with students about their understanding and facilitates monitoring of tasks and responding to learner questions on a one-to-one basis as well as providing opportunities for praise, guidance and encouragement.  

The synthesis task involved students being placed in groups of six (randomly assigned to facilitate maximum engagement) who were all given the same two short extracts of Digital Humanities sources to synthesise. They were initially given 20 minutes to work on this although I extended this as I could see learners needed more time. They were encouraged to nominate a scribe who would draft their synthesis then write it up on an A3 sheet provided using larger flipchart pens. 

Prior to the activity, there were a number of scaffolding tasks to build the foundation for synthesis writing. The first activity exposed learners to a synthesis which they were required to read and answer questions on. The purpose of this was to highlight what we mean by voices in a debate, introduce learners to reporting verbs and other useful phrases to signal transition in addition to the currency of the source. 

In the next activity, learners were instructed to match reasons for synthesising sources to explanations. This was included to provide a rationale for synthesis to learners and a way for them to see its relevance to the marking criteria. 

The activity which followed this focused on developing learners’ lexis to ensure they had sufficient means of combining sources that have similar stances/findings and those with divergent ones. Following this, I showed learners a step-by-step guide to synthesis before starting the group writing task. At the end of the synthesis writing practice, I read some of the syntheses aloud and elicited feedback from learners in other groups. 

How did you introduce it to students?

I introduced the session with a focus on eliciting the features of good academic writing. Learners thought about this individually and then shared their ideas with a partner before I requested feedback. Many of the students mentioned the importance of structure, clarity and appropriate referencing while a few knew about hedging language. I was not able to elicit style (academic and formal vocabulary) or linking (the use of conjunctions, smooth transitions between paragraphs and the use of demonstratives/pronouns to avoid repetition of a word in a sentence or to refer back to a previous clause) so mentioned these and explained their importance. 

I then proceeded to discuss the writing process and learners were instructed to rank the following academic skills from the easiest to the most difficult: write critically; use of sources; your written voice; write for your reader; and review. This was mainly an awareness raising task to allow learners to reflect on their own writing process and, from a teacher perspective, acted as a diagnostic activity to assess students’ current understanding and allow me to discuss common challenges and ways to overcome them.  

How did you check students’ learning during or from the activity?

As this was a face-to-face setting, I was able to monitor the whole class by circulating the room. This meant I could check students were on task, provide clarification on instructions if necessary, respond to individual questions and encourage their discussions, exchange of ideas and praise their synthesis drafts. I was also able to see at a glance whether the majority of students had finished which is something that is more difficult to ascertain in a Teams setting where learners are placed in breakout rooms.  

One student said, ‘The interaction between students and the teacher is great. Student feedback helps teachers keep the pace of the class. Also, teachers can answer students’ questions. It’s a win-win situation.’ Another learner commented, ‘I was very happy because the session was really useful, especially because I have a problem with synthesis, and I think that is a is a very common problem for students’. 

It was also fantastic to have Laura present as the subject expert who acted as a secondary monitor and used her in-depth knowledge of the students to support them in a personalised way. Laura’s presence was particularly helpful in the plenary feedback where she could respond to the content of the syntheses while I was able to focus on the academic writing skills introduced/reviewed and practised earlier in the session. 

What benefits did you see?

The benefits of collaborating and co-delivering a session involving an expert in academic literacy and a discipline specialist included the ability to plan a session that responded directly to student needs and which was subject specific. This had a positive effect on learner motivation; they could see the relevance of the skills being practised in their own context. When asked about how helpful having an embedded session was rather than a general writing one, one student responded, ‘There might be some overlap with the writing lab, but I think it’s important to have something more specific to DAMM [Digital Asset and Media Management] like this’. Another replied, ‘Yes, this was helpful. Some students already have general reading and writing skills. This session was perfect.’

I think timing was also significant; their summative assignment brief had just been released and I was able to link the skills in the session to those they would be required to demonstrate in their essays through the marking criteria. This further increased motivation and engagement in the session. The process of following a synthesis guide was also helpful to learners. Not assuming any baseline knowledge in this process and being explicit in how to approach drafting a synthesis provided sufficient scaffolding for all students to be able to attempt the task. I endeavoured to create a learning environment in which all learners are welcomed, valued, supported and challenged as inclusive pedagogies and inclusion are something both Laura and I are strong proponents of. 

What challenges did you encounter?

On my part, the challenge arose from not knowing all the learners well as I do not teach them on a regular basis. I had taught some of them in the first embedded academic literacy session on critical reading although this was delivered online a few weeks’ prior, so the context was different. I believe, though, that this was partially overcome through liaising extensively with Laura in meetings we organised before the sessions and having her present when I was teaching. You will inevitably have the issue of some students being more confident in their ability to identify areas of similarity and divergence in source texts possibly due to their general reading speed, critical reading skills and previous experience of doing this. This was one of the reasons why I opted for a group writing task as it would reduce these kinds of barriers impeding individual students and allow for discussion and peer teaching in producing a synthesis which would reflect a team effort. 

What advice would you give colleagues thinking of trying this activity?

I think all of the tasks leading up to the synthesis were necessary foundational blocks to allow all learners to actively participate and be successful in the group synthesis exercise. Perhaps the features of academic writing and the writing process could be sent to students in advance so they were prepared for the initial discussions. I think, though, that expecting learners to complete tasks prior to an embedded session in a kind of flipped approach relies heavily on reminding students to do this. As a learning developer external to their department, therefore, the practicality of sending work in advance and reminding learners to complete it prior to the session is limited. You would also have the issue of some students not having done the preparatory tasks so class time would need to be allocated to this anyway.  

I think, though, perhaps providing more time for the synthesis task would be good in order to allow all groups to receive some kind of immediate feedback on their drafts. Another suggestion might be to encourage learners to upload their submissions to a dedicated academic skills area of their module page on Keats while in class for later educator feedback would be beneficial. (Laura did set up a Padlet on Keats for student submissions although this was not widely used by groups after the session.) 

*Feedback was collected on Friday, 9th December when Laura held a small online focus group with 5 students who attended the Critical Writing Skills in-person session in November. All students are international students: two from China; one from India; one from Italy; and one from South Korea.  

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.