A formula for strategic online synthesis

The anchor standards for reading and writing in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects (2010)  place significant emphasis on the construction of meaning from multiple texts in print and digital formats. To date, however, the evidence for instructional methods that support “synthesis” skills development in K-12 is sparse. This is particularly true for the online context. To my mind, teachers and students would benefit considerably if there were a method that had been tested empirically…and that could be implemented with some confidence that it would support the development of online synthesis skills.

Last summer, I had a serendipitous opportunity to pilot a framework for online synthesis with colleagues and a group of students at an elementary school here in Michigan. The students, all 5th and 6th graders, were invited to participate in a summer institute designed to support their math and literacy skills through innovative and authentic inquiry projects that integrated technologies. Based on overall academic performance and reading comprehension scores, the students who were invited to participate were generally those most at-risk for academic underachievement or failure.

During the summer institute, the kids created “Wonders”, inspired by the popular Wonderopolis.org website on topics that were related to sports (the summer Olympics were then taking place in London!) To create their Wonders, students had to do a lot of online reading. The teachers were looking for a systematic way to introduce the iterative cycle of online reading and synthesis…and since I was developing something for my dissertation research study, I asked them if they would consider giving this framework a try. They did — and much to our delight, it seemed to work!

Mostly, the teachers reported that the formula — which they introduced by modelling the process via think alouds, and then having the students use the strategies over a few weeks — provided a starting point for richer conversations about online reading and synthesis. With a common vocabulary, everyone was able to understand the expectations, but also to talk about what they were doing at each step in their process.

This piloting experience gave me the confidence to refine my method a bit further for my dissertation study — which I’ve been running with students since November, 2012.

Anecdotally, students in my dissertation study have told me similar things. One student said that the list of strategies reminded her of what she needed to do and helped her stay focused. Another student said that the strategies were especially helpful because it made the whole process of inquiry a little less overwhelming.

There is much still to analyze, and think about…but here’s the list of strategies. I’ve written them as a mathematical “formula” to metaphorically represent the additive and exponential growth in understanding that comes through synthesis of multiple perspectives 🙂

(PST)2 + iC3

P = Purpose

What do I have to do?

P = Prior Knowledge

What do I already know about this topic?

S = Search Terms

What search words and phrases will I use to find good information?

S = Source Selection
Which sources seem promising?

T = Type

What kind of web resource is this and what should the structure tell me about what I will probably find there?

T = Trustworthy

How trustworthy is this information? What criteria have I used to judge it?
i = Identify Important Ideas

What information is important here? Why is this information important?

C = Compare

How does this information compare with what you already knew?

C = Connect

Does this back up something you have already read? Does differ in some way from what you have read elsewhere? Is it unique information that takes your understanding in a new direction?

C = Continually Update

What does your overall understanding of the problem look like now?

Feel free to view the PST2 + iC3 formula here as well: http://bit.ly/X44f8M

Old-school tech, new school reading: On repurposing transparency film to support multiple text integration online

I’m nearing the end of data collection in a study that (I hope) will provide teachers with much-needed information on methods that support (or don’t support?) 9th grade students’ reading of multiple, multi-modal Internet texts on science-focused topics of inquiry. As I was developing my teaching intervention, I was especially concerned with methods that would help students to construct an integrated model of what they understand (Kintsch, 1998). In the introduction to his book, Kintsch (1998) explains his Construction-Integration theory of comprehension (pp. 4-5):

Roughly, the story goes like this. We start with a comprehender who has specific goals, a given background of knowledge and experience, and a given perceptual situation. The perceptual situation may, for instance, be the printed words on a page of text. […] Given these idea units in the form of propositions as well as the reader’s goals, associated elements from the reader’s long-term memory (knowledge, experience) are retrieved to form an interrelated network together with the already existing perceptual elements. Because this retrieval is entirely a bottom-up process, unguided by the larger discourse context, the nascent network will contain both relevant and irrelevant items. Spreading activation around this network until the pattern of activation stabilizes works as a constraint-satisfaction process, selectively activating those elements that fit together or are somehow related and deactivating the rest. Hence, the name of the theory, the construction-integration (CI) theory: A context-insensitive construction processes is followed by a constraint-satisfaction, or integration, process that yeilds if all goes well, an orderly mental structure out of initial chaos.

Upon first reading this paragraph, the last sentence really struck a chord with me. Online, the magnitude of “chaos” presented by “the perceptual situation” can overwhelm readers – especially novices. I recognized that any teaching intervention that would help students make “an orderly mental structure” would have to help them stay focused on their purpose, and on what they already knew so that the process of ‘selective activation’ might actually occur.

I also decided that to build a network, it might be helpful for students to actually see its foundations as it grew. We know that background knowledge is a huge determinant of reading comprehension (Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Langer, 1984) but I hypothesized that if students could record what they already knew on their topic of inquiry (e.g., the pros and cons of nuclear power or whether a person with cancer should accept the risks of radiation therapy) AND be able to refer to it and build from it as they read across multiple texts, it might help them to solidify their understanding more effectively. I saw limitations, however, to regular paper.

If students took notes on a regular piece of paper, I worried that the background knowledge that they started with would be forgotten at the top of the page, or quickly muddled with what they had read. Plus, from a research perspective, I wanted to be able to see what students learned. The background knowledge had to remain, visually, as the foundation of the model students were building — and for that to happen, I needed students to be able to build up from it — to deliberately construct a layered model of understanding. As my advisor, Doug Hartman said, I needed to be able to separate students’ background knowledge from what they read just as maps allow geographers to see layers of topography.

So, what did I do? Well, I repurposed an old-school technology 🙂

Before doing any reading on the Internet, students in the treatment condition were asked to brainstorm, with their reading partner, everything they knew on the topic. Using a single color (which they chose from a rainbow assortment of permanent Sharpies) they jotted down their knowledge and related experiences on a single transparency sheet.

Yup. A good old sheet of 3M Transparency film. A few kids had never seen or touched the stuff. Most of them remembered it from “like, 2nd grade, before the digital projectors were installed”.

Then, when they began to read, students layered a second transparency sheet on top of the first. Students were told to build from their background knowledge, and to jot down important ideas from what they read using any method. The intervention also explicitly taught students to compare and connect new information to background knowledge. The transparencies allowed students to see their background knowledge — but it was also made old and new information physically separate entities that could be teased apart and then re-aligned.

In an informal interview, one student,who has completed the study, told me that having his background knowledge on the first transparency film allowed him to stay focused on the task purpose because seeing what he already knew reminded him of what he needed to find out.

I’ll be analyzing more data to determine the impact of the intervention overall, but based on my observations of students’ use of the transparency film, I think this method offers great promise to students as they construct “an orderly mental structure out of initial chaos” (Kintsch, 1998, p. 5). It’s simple, inexpensive, and it makes the process of building a mental model much more concrete for students and teachers alike. At any point in the reading inquiry process, everyone has access to where students started, and what they’ve since read and identified as important. Plus, it’s something that teachers across all subject areas can do — from K-12 — as they help students to integrate what they learn from multiple sources.


Anderson, R.C. & Pearson, P.D. (1984). A schema-theoretic view of basic processes in reading comprehension. In P.D. Pearson, R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 255-292). New York: Longman.

Kintsch, W., (1998). Comprehension: A paradigm for cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Langer, J. A. (1984). Examining background knowledge and text comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 468-481.