Disclaimer: Please note that synthesis is no longer a component of the DBQ or LEQ rubrics for the AP Histories as of the 2017-2018 school year.
In this post, we will explore one of these points students will be looking to earn to help their chances at passing the APUSH exam this Spring: the Synthesis point.
What is the Synthesis Point?
According to the College Board, Synthesis refers to:
Historical thinking involves the ability to develop understanding of the past by making meaningful and persuasive historical and/or cross-disciplinary connections between a given historical issue and other historical contexts, periods, themes, or disciplines.
(College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)
Synthesis is a crucial critical thinking skill that is featured in the newly redesigned course. In my opinion, this is a great skill to actively address in the classroom. Making connections between different time periods, events and various contexts throughout American history is something I have always attempted to do in my classroom, but the College Board explicitly defining this skill has made me much more cognizant and proactive in helping students see interconnectedness between our past and today.
The place it is most relevant in the course is as one potential point students can earn on both the Document Based Question (DBQ) and Long Essay Question (LEQ). In order to earn the synthesis point, students must “extend the argument.” This means that in addition to making an argument with a thesis and supported by evidence, students must do something beyond answering the specific prompt. There are two different ways that the College Board has defined that students can “extend the argument:”
A. Make connections between a given historical issue and related developments in a different historical context, geographical area, period, or era, including the present. (College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)
The first way to earn the synthesis point is to take a part of the essay and compare it to something else that was covered in the course. This could be something from another one of the nine time periods, another region or part of America, or a similar event.
B. Make connections between different course themes and/or approaches to history (such as political, economic, social, cultural, or intellectual) for a given historical issue. (College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)
The second way essentially gives students the ability to add an additional category of analysis: If the question asks for political and economic factors, students could additionally discuss social factors for a particular issue or event.
Note: There is also an additional way in that AP European History and AP World History students can earn the synthesis point, by using another discipline like anthropology or government to explore a historical issue. This third option is not open as a possibility for APUSH students.
Synthesis can technically happen at any time throughout the essay. However, I encourage students to write their synthesis in a conclusion paragraph. I think it makes the most sense there because going beyond the argument of the essay is a good way for students to tie up their thoughts, which typically occurs in the final paragraph. It also ensures that students are thorough and don’t just treat the connection in a superficial way (more on this below). Finally, it makes it less likely that their synthesis attempt will get confused with evidence they are using to build their argument.
Examples of Successful Student Synthesis Points
Regardless of which way students try to earn the synthesis point, one of the biggest pitfalls that students fall into is simply referencing the connection in a few words or a phrase without going into substantive depth. Students need to go into detail explaining what the connection is and why there is a relationship between their essay and the examples they chose.
Comparing Different Time Periods and Events
For example, if students are writing an essay about the causes and effects of the abolitionist movement, they may write:
This is similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
This is not enough depth to be awarded a Synthesis point. Students need to explain what the Civil Rights movement is: who are the main leaders, what were some of their goals, and/or what were successes and failures of the movement. Students also need to be clear on why the abolitionist movement and Civil Rights movement are related. What are similarities and differences? What specific connections can be made between the two? A better response would be:
Similar to the abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s continued to promote better conditions and increased equality for African Americans. Like David Walker and Nat Turner, some leaders of the Civil Rights era advocated for violence, including Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. However, like the Free Soil Party and the orator Frederick Douglass, Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee supported peaceful and political tactics to bring attention to their goals of increased social equality and basic rights for African Americans.
Note the dramatic difference. The first is an offhand vague reference that lacks evidence of a depth of understanding. The second example has specific pieces of information that provide substantial evidence of a connection between the two movements.
Comparing Different Geographic Regions
In addition to referencing similarities between different time periods, students can earn the synthesis point by comparing geographic areas. For example, if students are asked to identify the causes of industrialization before the Civil War, students could look at the lack of industrialization in the South in this same time period. One example of a solid student example is below:
While the Northeast began rapid industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s, the South remained predominantly rural and agricultural. Large cities were few and far between, and with the invention of the cotton gin, the plantation economy and an emphasis on farming and agriculture was reasserted. The South shipped their cash crops to European and Northern factories, remaining mostly unindustrialized in the years before the Civil War. These economic differences created stark differences between the North and South on a variety of issues, including protective tariffs, which northern industrialists favored and southern consumer opposed.
Making Connections to Different Course Themes
One effective strategy students can use to earn the synthesis point is to add an additional course theme (or category of analysis). This works best when the prompt explicitly calls for specific themes. For example, if a prompt calls for economic and political causes and effects of the Vietnam War, students could write an additional paragraph on social causes and effects. A good response for students would include class tensions, war protesters, racial tensions in the armed forces, etc. In this scenario, students could also reference specific social documents if it is a DBQ. Again, it is crucial to make sure that students don’t do this in a drive-by sort of way, but go into depth with a variety of specific examples.
Strategies for Teaching Synthesis to Students
1. Make Connections Early and Often
Synthesis is all about making connections between different time periods and situations. After each unit or chapter, have students make 2-3 connections to something else they learned in the class. For example when your class is studying the Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1917, students could connect these laws to the United States Constitution’s freedom of speech and press, President Adam’s Sedition Act of 1798, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, or even the Patriot Act during the War on Terror. This could be done formally as a written assignment, or informally as a warm-up or exit ticket as a formative assessment. The more comfortable students are in making these connections, the better off they will be on the exam date.
2. Incorporating In-Class Activities
Making teaching Synthesis a part of your class time is crucial in observing student growth on this skill. I have done a few activities that have been especially useful. One is to find a news story that makes a comparison to historical events in the past (one recent piece compared Trump to Andrew Jackson) and ask students to discuss or debate on the similarities and differences (more on current events below).
Additionally, I printed out a variety of terms and events from the first semester cut them out, and randomly handed them out to students. Students had to go around the room and try to figure out how their term was related to another students’ term. Some inevitably were not really related at all, but it forced students to try to make connections between the various periods and subjects we focused on (many times beyond just basic surface-level stuff), which is essentially what synthesis is all about.
3. Assign Many DBQ and LEQ Assessments and Share Specific Examples
The more often students write DBQ’s and LEQ’s, the more comfortable students will get with the entire process and skill set involved, including Synthesis. One thing that has been especially successful in my classroom is to collect a handful of student attempts at the Synthesis point and share them with students. Students then get to examine them and look at effective and less effective attempts at earning Synthesis. Often the best way for students to learn what to do or how to improve is to see what their classmates have done.
4. Review Historical Themes Throughout the Year
The College Board has broken all of the learning objectives into a handful of themes (identity, culture, politics and power, etc.) that are relevant throughout United States history. By relying on these themes, students can see these connections throughout the year, making Synthesis more approachable for students.
For example, one theme I follow throughout the year is immigration and demographic changes. By tracing America’s immigration from colonization to Irish and German in the 1840s to New Immigrants after the Civil War and so on, students are able to find ample opportunities to make historical connections throughout American history.
Additionally, being explicit about covering events through a variety of historical categories of analysis (political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual), allows students to see multiple factors that play a role in key events in American history. For example, when covering the causes of US imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, breaking them down for students into economic factors (such as business markets), social factors (such as Social Darwinism and religious missionaries) and political factors (such as increased government and military power) is useful in helping student organizing their thoughts in a potential essay, as well as giving them some possible ways to go beyond the prompt in adding synthesis.
5. Make Connections to Current Events
I know what you are thinking, I have one school year (less if your school year starts in September) to get through 1491 to Present and now I am supposed to make this a current events class as well? The answer is yes and no. Will stuff from the news pages be content the students need to know for the exam: absolutely not. However, it is a great opportunity for synthesis.
For example, examining the LGBT movement could offer some interesting comparisons for other reform movements in the past. Looking at President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as a continuation of Social Security or Medicare could offer students a synthesis opportunity. Examining similarities and differences between the Boston Tea Party and the Tea Party movement or how the 2016 election compares to some presidential races in the past allows students unique ways to earn their synthesis point. I have found this approach makes the class more interesting and meaningful for students and allows students to observe that history has continuities and changes that evolve over time.
Any time changes happen, there is a temptation to be reactionary and reject them. I have found that by being more deliberate about helping students make connections between historical events, their engagement and understanding has improved significantly. Teachers always are fighting that battle between covering the content (which is daunting in an AP course) and helping students understand the “so what?” question. Why does this matter to me? By making connections, students can see that history does not every happen in a vacuum. Our shared narrative is a series of events and ideas that continuously evolve and build off of each other. When students gain a firm understanding of how the past impacts their lives today, it makes learning way more meaningful and fun.
Synthesis is tough for students at first, particularly because they have little to connect with in the first period, but especially as you enter second semester, it is a skill application that can be perfected and improved to maximize your students’ chances of earning that point and rocking the AP exam.
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Ben Hubing is an educator at Greendale High School in Greendale, Wisconsin. Ben has taught AP U.S. History and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the last eight years and was a reader last year for the AP U.S. History Short Answer. Ben earned his Bachelors degree at The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Masters degree at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Taking a more thoughtful approach to reading during your research phase is usually the first step toward creating a successful synthesis, as MIT professor Ed Boyden explains in a Technology Review blog post titled “How to Think”:
“Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you're reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff. That way, you will always aim towards understanding things at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative.”
By reading actively, students will be better able to recognize the crucial connections between ideas that form the basis for synthesizing.
Students must learn to approach their research with synthesis in mind. Arizona State University offers step-by-step instructions for conducting research in a way that’s conducive to synthesizing information. Not surprisingly, one of the first steps involves highlighting key facts and ideas while reading, to aid in the cross-reference of sources later on.
ASU provides additional instruction for educators interested in using this particular model for synthesis.
One of the most straightforward and comprehensive guides to writing syntheses comes from Michigan State University. Its “Introduction to Syntheses” article covers the purpose of syntheses, types of syntheses, and techniques for writing synthesis essays. This article is a must-read for older students, particularly the section “How to Write Synthesis Essays.”
According to the College Board, one exercise used in AP English courses to emphasize synthesis is the researched argument paper. “Researched argument papers remind students that they must sort through disparate interpretations to analyze, reflect upon, and write about a topic. When students are asked to bring the experience and opinions of others into their essays in this way, they enter into conversations with other writers and thinkers.” Download the course description for more extensive information on researched argument papers, and other exercises that can be used to teach advanced aspects of synthesis.
Synthesis for Young Students
Into the Book, a site that aims to help teachers educate students on reading comprehension strategies, has aggregated links to help students learn synthesis skills. The “Teacher Background” links provide teachers with ways of thinking about synthesis that could aid them in their classroom instruction. Note that the “Key Concept: Synthesis” link has moved to a new address. The site has an interesting graphic organizer that students can fill out while reading, to make identifying connections in the text a less abstract activity.