The University of Texas at Austin
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Teaching Synthesis

Recommended for mid- to late semester

Task

Students work with concepts from two disciplines, or two branches of the same discipline, using one to explore the other, or examining and discussing them in ways that reveal contrast, similarity, cause-effect, problem-solution, or other relationships. Students may investigate how solutions in one field illuminate problems in another, how work in one field is changing the way questions are asked in another field, and so on.

Some instructors use special formats to guide this kind of writing, asking students to write dialogues, conduct debates, or use other structures that make the dialogic nature of the task more obvious.

  • Write a short history of the Crimean War told from the perspective of an economist. In economic terms, which nation really “won” the war?
  • Visit any departmental office in the Business School and write an ethnography of the people working and studying there. What are their goals and values? What distinguishes their “culture” from that of other departments on campus?
  • Dr. Randy Bomer in the School of Education has students find topics where democracy and education, the main strands of his Signature Course, combine. Dr. Bomer’s students lead an in-class discussion and write an issue paper on their topic. The full assignment thus gives them experience questioning, researching, synthesizing, and responding.

Average Length: 5-10 pages. Synthesizing two or more disciplinary concepts will usually require extra space.

Providing Feedback and Guidance

The demands of this kind of assignment make it likely that students will produce rather meandering rough drafts, which will benefit from substantial editing for thought and clarity. Schedule at least one full week after you have commented on drafts for students to revise. This type of assignment is also a good candidate for peer review as a whole class or in online forums.

Grading

In addition to clarity of writing, grading criteria for this kind of assignment should address the extent to which students demonstrate their understanding of concepts in both disciplines, the accuracy of their conclusions, and their ability to find creative, non-obvious questions or answers.

You can also adapt one of the rubrics available on the Grading Rubrics page, such as this scaled analytical rubric.