Date of Award

Fall 12-2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Rhetoric, Writing, and Discourse Studies

Committee Director

Julia Romberger

Committee Member

Kevin DePew

Committee Member

Louise Wetherbee Phelps

Committee Member

Elizabeth D. Woodworth


Synthesis is one of the most cognitively demanding practices novice writers must undertake, and research demonstrates that first-year students’ synthesis writing practices result in more knowledge telling rather than knowledge creation and transforming. Pedagogies used to teach synthesis often focus on developing text-building strategies but lack explicit instruction on the more cognitively demanding conceptualizing behavior. To explore alternative pedagogies and heuristics, this study looks beyond composition scholarship to incorporate studies in neuroeducation and rhetoric to define synthesis as an ongoing, generative act of cognitive invention, effectively shifting pedagogical focus from text-centered product to student-centered cognitive processes that inform development of synthesized texts (a product). The methods were designed to explore any effects a visual intervention might have on developing student conceptual awareness and reflective practice over time, and whether that transferred into a final researched essay as knowledge transforming.

This small-scale exploratory study applies a mixed-methods, design-based methodology to a semester-long intervention in first-year writing classrooms using digital concept maps (DCMAPs) as an ongoing, student-designed space of visualized concept construction. A Control group applied traditional reading-to-write text-based synthesis instruction and practice, while the Intervention group used DCMAPs to enact a prolonged, visualized and reflective practice of active construction of associations, relationships, and structural knowledge building. The DCMAP platform affordances positioned students as knowledge designers enacting creative / constructive processes, an approach based on neuroscience research on patterning and visualization. Intervention data includes reflective journals, narrated mapping process reflections, digital concept map images and construction processes, and a final researched essay that required synthesis of source ideas. Because of the exploratory nature of the study, results are not framed as cause-effect but as correlational possibilities that suggest inventional acts of visually creating connections and labeling them using rhetorically-based associational concepts lead to generative learning behaviors. Results suggest a number of possibilities for future iterations and research, as well as implications for our field’s approach to the teaching of synthesis.


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