Bringing Sources into Conversation: Teaching Literature Review to High School Students (Part 2)

As I mentioned in November, I have become a huge fan of having students read and write literature reviews before heading off to college. Working with students in those upper-level electives that use scholarly sources, I have found that they completely misinterpret what that section of papers is doing and how they are meant to interact with it. More importantly, I find that literature reviews help with basic and highly specific skill-building for which alums express appreciation when they transition to college. In addition, I have several highly collaborative colleagues now (in our AP-equivalent Advanced Topics Statistics, Biology, and History Research and Writing classes) who collaborate on teaching how to build lit reviews, and also invite me to hang around as students work, involve me in draft reading and feedback, as well as assessment.

For my first several years at this school, AP/AT Statistics was the only class that undertook functional literature reviews, and the teacher made time available some years for me to come in and teach students what a lit review was before they wrote it. So, I had several opportunities to experiment. I will admit that, in part, this process has gotten easier as students have had an increasing number of years building relationships with me prior to my appearing for this lesson (in year two, students stared at me stony-faced over a sample lit review about whether dogs feel jealousy and in year three the lit reviews on women and swearing got the same response – in years nine, ten, and eleven, the same lit reviews go over very well among my gender-diverse girls school students, because they are unsurprised that I plumb the Ig Noble award-winning papers for funny, readable, and informative examples).

In any event, over the years I found some methods that worked better than others at teaching students particular skills inherent in lit review writing, but I still found the outcomes of student work quite inconsistent. No matter how I explained the basic building blocks of lit reviews, not all students seemed to get it – or, at least it took more, one-on-one discussion over time to drive the concepts home. So, this year I took on a new approach – and this one seemed to yield much stronger results.

What is a lit review?

This year, I did not tell students what lit reviews are for or how they are organized. Working in pairs or table groups, students read sample lit reviews. Each student would have a different paper. Their task was to compare, discuss, and answer: 

1. What job the lit review was doing? and 

2. What are the building blocks of lit reviews? 

We would then work to synthesize their observations as a class, which gave the classroom teacher and myself opportunities to add observations, clarify details, answer questions, and correct misconceptions. We always pause to look at an example of a sentence that address a single study and one that reflects on several studies that arrive at similar findings.

We do this work on paper — lots of annotating takes place, and we want them focused — so most students had their computers closed. One student took notes for the whole class to refer back to ask they worked (examples). I also gave them Assiya’s (my dedicated Lit Review Research TA) FAQ that I shared back in November, of course!

Creating conversations

In the second round, students looked for signs of “conversation.” How could you tell that authors are bringing sources into conversation with each other? What words did they use to demonstrate a conversation was taking place? Students discovered signal phrases – a concept I learned from The Harker School’s Lauri Vaughan – and transitions in their texts, and I gave them hard copies of the transitions template from They Say, I Say, and a handout on signal phrases with lists of sample verbs. 

(Sidenote: I get these documents into the hands of students every chance I get. They really help students to bring sources into conversation. A former Research TA and I analyzed multiple grade-levels of History writing from the same cohort of students, looking for how they were using evidence and hallmarks of strong skills. We found that precise and varied verb selection was at least highly correlated with good use of evidence. Since then, I encourage those students who do not naturally jive with synthesizing from multiple sources to let verbs lead their way; it is really helpful for them to pull out the list and just ask themselves which fit what they are seeing: are these sources contradicting? building upon? supporting? advocating for? Classroom teachers love that students use more variety than “said….said….said.” I encourage students to keep these docs next to their computers for reference whenever they are working to bring multiple sources into conversation.)

I do not know why I did not try this method years ago. Clearly, having students observe for themselves and puzzle out the “rules” of lit review was so much more effective than telling them.

Organizational schema

The final step of the lesson, which I have used for the last eight years or so, was to give students a set of notecards and have them practice organizing lit reviews based on different prompts. (I have two sets I use, here and here.) For each set of cards, I have three questions, and students work in their groups to pile notecards into the paragraphs they would create to answer each. For dogs, the questions this year were:

  1. Do dogs feel jealousy only over “their person,” or any person?
  2. Do dogs distinguish between social and non-social recipients of their person’s attention?
  3. What method is most effective for testing secondary emotions in dogs?

For each of these questions, most of the studies conveyed on the cards could be used in a lit review. However, for each of these questions, how the sources would be grouped would vary. A lit review might be organized thematically, methodologically, chronologically, etc. This exercise reinforces the idea they discovered earlier in the class that lit reviews are not “serial book reports” (a paragraph going into depth on each source) but synthetic documents.

I’ve come to love working with students on lit reviews, and feel quite passionate about the feelings of agency and accomplishment that they engender. Do you collaborate on any lit review instruction or creation? How do you approach this work?