A common problem I observe in student papers the use of source material in a sequential as opposed to an integrated fashion.

For example, the first paragraph will be based on source 1, the second paragraph based on source 2, third paragraph on source 3, etc...

I am having a hard time helping them develop their writing to the point that they integrate their sources into a more fully synthesized argument that is supported by their sources.

To date, I have highlighted the problem in drafts and given them examples of papers where the sources were used effectively but I find that they have a hard time transferring the skill from the examples.

What other approaches would be effective to help the students develop more sophisticated use of source material?

(I teach in biology so the students are most often writing review papers where they use existing biological literature to support a hypothesis.)

  • 1
    Good question. What methods are they using to compile their source notes now? For example, are they reviewing sources one at a time and compiling a set of notes for each? or is the research more integrated but the writing isn't? (I'm thinking the answer involves organizing those notes by topic rather than by source, but I've only faced this problem from the student/writer side, not the teacher side, so am guessing somewhat.) Apr 25, 2013 at 17:25
  • @MonicaCellio I have not explicitly required that they share that so I am not sure in all cases. My guess is that the ones having the problem are not using much of a method at all but rather making a paper out of the first 5 - 6 sources they find, instead of collecting sources to understand and develop an argument around a topic. I have some ideas about how I might encourage more "exploration" of the source material but I was hoping to hear from some folks with experience.
    – DQdlM
    Apr 25, 2013 at 17:44
  • I can answer from the "what works for me as a writer" perspective, but not from the perspective of a teacher. Apr 25, 2013 at 18:23
  • @MonicaCellio well there doesn't seem to be a run on answers :) so it certainly couldn't hurt to get your perspective.
    – DQdlM
    Apr 25, 2013 at 22:30

3 Answers 3


I can think of an exercise which might help - although I'm not sure how efficient it would be - if the students would be able to solve it. Chose a set of sources for them and give them a task that forces cross-referencing, comparing and binding them.

For example, give the students a task of examining and proving or disproving a claim in source A (which you know is false/wrong/erroneous) by using information from sources B and C, from which each alone is not sufficient for the proof, but combined they prove the claim in A is wrong.

Another example: get them to give you information which is not readily available in provided sources. It's to be deduced - combine data from A, method from B, exceptions from C. That way they will have to combine the information.

Or: Read between the lines. Person (politician) A claims something that sounds quite generic. Person (group) B reacts in apparently paradoxical way. The situation is described in document C. Describe what in person A's claim upset person B so much.

In essence, make them use the data they found, not only quote it - if the result can be achieved only by combining the data, blind quoting will get them nowhere.

  • 1
    I like this a lot, because it also teaches critical thinking and cross-checking. I'd give this a lot more than +1 if I could! Apr 26, 2013 at 11:17

Way back in 10th grade, when we were learning how to do research papers on the back of a coal shovel, our teacher had us take all our notes on 3x5 cards. We had to submit them as part of the grade — she actually went around with a bag and we had to toss in our rubber-banded stack of cards.

Edit to clarify: Each card had one note or thought on it: "After a flower blooms and has wilted, pinch it off. This is known as 'deadheading,' and improves the health of the plant." If the next thought is about weeding, it goes on a different card.

Maybe that should be part of the technique: the students take notes on the 3x5 cards (what they should put on each card can be up to them or up to you), and then you sit with either one example or with each student to show how the information can literally be reshuffled.

Every card needs a source line (we put ours on the back) so that when the cards are rearranged, it's easy to source any given item.

  • I'm afraid that still keeps the information even more segmented instead of making it blend, flow and intersect.
    – SF.
    Apr 26, 2013 at 9:40
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    @SF. No, I don't think you understand. Let's say I take notes from five sources about gardening. Each source goes through the process of buy seeds, plant, fertilize, weed, deadhead, prune. I now have 30 cards. I can take all five cards about "weeding" and put them together to make one section about weeding, using five different sources. The OP may need to demonstrate how to synthesize the five cards, but pulling the cards away from the source order turns them into independent facts which can be rearranged. Apr 26, 2013 at 11:15
  • Oh, I thought it was one source = one card, and that of course wouldn't be very helpful.
    – SF.
    Apr 26, 2013 at 11:21
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    This is how I learned research as well, and still my basic approach although not as literally based on notecards - I wonder if it is too analog for Millennials... There must be a digital equivalent.
    – DQdlM
    Apr 26, 2013 at 14:07
  • 1
    This is how I was taught too -- one idea/fact per card, and group them as @LaurenIpsum said in a comment above. These days it might not be physical cards, but same idea. Apr 26, 2013 at 15:53

I had a professor who did a synthesis lecture using fruit. She brought in a brown paper grocery bag and started pulling out produce one at a time. The purpose was to come up with a general rule to determine if something was a fruit or a vegetable.

Apple: Fruit

Peas: Vegetable

Lettuce: Vegetable

Rule 1: Vegetables are green

Carrot: Vegetable

Potato: Vegetable

Rule 2: Vegetables are roots, or green if they grow in the air.

And so forth. By the time she got to avocados (which I've never been able to decide), we had a pretty good rule.

A similar exercise could work for you. By forcing the students to explain why something is a fruit or vegetable in relation to other produce, they have to mix their sources.

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