Creating a Synthesis Grid

In my Kanban example, I mentioned creating a synthesis grid as a process step (or task) towards completing a literature review. A synthesis grid provides a way to compare sources. My students often find it helpful, whether they are learning to use sources in first-year writing or conducting advanced literature reviews for capstone projects, and I frequently use the tool in my own writing.

In brief, the synthesis grid is formatted as a table. The header row contains concepts or ideas that seem central to the overall topic or that reoccur across sources. The first column lists the various texts the writer has read on the topic. If a source addresses a sub-topic listed in the header row, the writer summarizes the source’s take and lists relevant page numbers in the corresponding cell. Sometimes the writer also includes quotations.

Synthesis Grid Example

Not every cell will have content. Yet, as the writer adds new rows (and new sources), she can visually see which sources address the same sub-topic.  When the writer moves on to synthesizing the prior literature, she can read down a column to isolate the prior conversations about each sub-topic, making it easier to focus on one discrete sub-topic (across sources) rather than on one discrete source.

What strategies do you use and/or teach to students for organizing your field’s prior conversations about a research topic?