Organizing and Grouping Information (Lesson A)

After successfully conducting research for a project, you will find yourself facing a mass of information and wondering how you will sort it all out to write a paper. This sorting process is the focus of this section.

First, we will distinguish the demands of a synthesis project from a basic summary. And next, we will practice organizing the research material into relevant categories of discussion. Finally, we will develop a template to filter research material into these categories of discussion and, develop connections and commentary.


This lesson draws on knowledge of three articles. If you haven’t already, you will want to read them now.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. An Occasional Paper on Digital Media and LearningJohn D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved from

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5). Retrieved 5 October 2001, from,%20Digital%20 Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Wohlsen, M. (2016). Digital literacy is the key to the future, but we still don’t know what it meansWIRED. Retrieved 14 April 2016, from’t-know-means/

Understanding Synthesis

Let’s begin with what you don’t want to do in a synthesis paper. Working with research material is challenging, and the risk is that research material is summarized in the paper, but not synthesized.

What’s the difference?

Summary vs. Synthesis (Reference)
Summary of Research material in an essay Synthesis of Research material in an essay
Source material is described in summary form, with an emphasis on how that material relates to the overall essay topic. Source material is critically evaluated for the position it takes in the larger conversation about the topic.
Source material is treated independently, with little effort to find connections or relationships between sources. Source material is viewed as part of a larger conversation, and explored for how it relates to and connects with the other sources addressing the same topic.
Summary essays are organized by source, as each section of the essay summarizes the ideas in one source. In this way, they are really essay versions of the annotated bibliography. Synthesis essays are organized by key issues or categories of information, and each section works to illuminate a new understanding of the issue by combining a variety of sources and examining the connections among them.

So, the goal when writing a synthesis paper is to find and explore meaningful connections among sources with various positions, arguments and assumptions. To do this, you must be able to organize the research information into relevant points of discussion.

Points of Discussion

To identify relevant points of discussion, we need to start with our purpose for doing the research in the first place. This purpose will, of course, change from project to project. The initial topic and research question provide a starting point. As we find and evaluate research material, we add to that our evolving understanding of the topic and a growing sense of the important themes and ideas emerging from the research itself.

Because of this, defining points of discussion tends to be a creative brainstorming act; we look over our research question and the mass of research we have read, and decide for ourselves what points of discussion are most relevant.

Have a look at this sample research question.

Points of Discussion (Reference)
Finding Points of Discussion
Research Question:

Digital technologies influence how we gain access to information and how we communicate with other people. In the 21st century, what skills will be essential?

To answer this research question:

What points of discussion do we need to make in the essay?

What would be the best headings for each section of the essay?

Let’s practice organizing ideas and sources around key points of discussion. In this exercise, you will be given the key points of discussion. When you write your paper, you will have to figure out what these are based on the information you have.

Organizing around Points of Discussion (Practice)

  1. Research Question:
    Click on the key words to help identify what kind of information you need to include in the essay.
  2. Organizing Research Questions:
    Below are 7 smaller questions that can help us to focus and to answer the research question. Read over these questions, and drag to group them under the most logical point of discussion.
  3. Relevant Source Material:

Organizing around Points of Discussion (Sample Answers)
  1. Research Question:
    Digital technologies influence how we gain access to information and how we communicate with other people. In the 21st century, what skills will be essential?
  2. Smaller Questions we can use to guide the research:
    21st Century Skills:
    • How do we define digital technology? Examples?
    • What are the essential 21st century skills needed to ensure we can succeed in a world shaped by digital technology? Is there debate about this?
    • Do different fields of study have different views about what skills are necessary?

    Access to Information:

    • How does it affect our access to information? Is there debate about this?
    • What skills will be necessary to ensure we can manage all the information that we have access to as a result of digital technology?

    Effects on Communication:

    • How does digital technology affect the way we communicate? Is there debate about this?
    • What skills will be necessary to ensure we can communicate effectively using digital technology?
  3. Relevant source material:
    21st Century Skills: Prensky, Jenkins, Wohlsen
    Access to Information: Prensky, Wohlsen, Jenkins
    Effects on Communication: Jenkins, Prensky

Download Sample Answers

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