About Research Writing: What is a Synthesis Matrix for Literature Review
A definition essay or definition paper is a type of essay that presents an extended definition of the subject. This essay goes beyond just providing the dictionary definition of the topic by including more comprehensive information. For instance, this essay may feature the meaning of the subject in various contexts as well as different perspectives.
Performing a literature review is an essential part of research writing. Whether a student is conducting simple research such as by completing a PICOT project or a more sophisticated study such as a systematic review, he or she can expect to complete a review of the existing literature. This project is also not limited to master’s or doctoral students completing their thesis and dissertations ; even college students may be asked to submit a literature review. But completing this project can easily get confusing and overwhelming. A tool that can help with this project, however, is the synthesis matrix. What exactly is a synthesis matrix and how does it help with research? A synthesis matrix is a table designed to organize and simplify the presentation of information from sources used in a literature review . While there is no fixed format for this type of project, it customarily details the most important points of the sources and the connections between them including common themes and contrasting findings.
Definition of Synthesis Matrix
One approach that can be taken in defining a synthesis matrix is by defining the words that comprise the term. The Oxford Dictionary (2021a) defines synthesis as “The combination of components or elements to form a connected whole.” While this is a general definition that describes the process of bringing together separate elements into a single whole, Cooper and Hedges (2011) provide a definition more specific to the context of research: “synthesis can be defined as the conjunction of a particular set of literature review characteristics…research syntheses attempt to integrate empirical research for the purpose of creating generalizations” (p. 6). Based on this definition, it can be surmised that synthesis in the context of research involves bringing together separate pieces of information on a common topic from different sources in order to create the bigger picture. By performing synthesis, the researcher is able to generate a body of knowledge that shows what is known about the subject, what is not known, and any common or contrasting themes and viewpoints.
While synthesis refers to bringing information together to build a whole, a matrix is defined by the Oxford Dictionary (2021b) as “a mold in which something, such as a record or printing type, is cast or shaped.” In a mathematical sense, the same dictionary defines it as “A rectangular array of quantities or expressions in rows and columns that is treated as a single entity and manipulated according to particular rules.” While these two definitions do not completely describe matrix in the context of research, more insight is offered by other matrices such as the SWOT analysis matrix or the BCG matrix . These tools are usually tables that feature blank spaces. These spaces, in turn, guide the user by telling him or her what information should be placed in them. Following this guide allows the user to make sense of the information and generate meaningful insight from their arrangement. The idea behind these matrices that are used in business suggests that the matrix is like a template that needs to be filled out by the user.
Taking these separate definitions for synthesis and matrix, it can therefore be surmised that a synthesis matrix is a tool that can be used to make sense of information from sources in a literature review. As the University of Arizona (2021) describes it, the synthesis matrix is “a table that can be used to organize research. When completed, it provides a visual representation of main ideas found in the literature and also shows where there is overlap in ideas between authors.” In other words, the synthesis matrix can be succinctly defined as a document that organizes and simplifies the presentation of information. The next section shows what a synthesis matrix looks like and how information is arranged.
Synthesis Matrix Template
While the synthesis matrix has no specific or fixed format, it is usually in the form of a table. One axis of the table lists the sources and the other axis lists information from the sources such as themes, points, findings, or claims among others (Johns Hopkins University, 2021; Central Michigan University, 2021). For example, suppose that a student is performing a review of the literature on the effects of routine exercises for cardiac patients , sources are bound to have similar and diverging contents. As taking in all this information can be confusing, the synthesis matrix arranges information in a way that makes it easier to view and comprehend. For instance, suppose Source 1 states that aerobic exercise helps lower blood pressure. Then Source 2 states that yoga is comparable to aerobic exercise when it comes to lowering blood pressure. Then Source 3 states a combination of aerobic exercise and yoga has the most positive impact on blood pressure. What is at hand here are three different sources with three different but not necessarily contradicting findings on the theme of exercise’s effect on blood pressure. The information can then be placed in the matrix along with other information gathered from other sources. The table below shows a synthesis matrix with some information filled in. Note that this sample is a very simple one designed to demonstrate the idea behind the tool; a real-life matrix will contain more information.
Theme 1: Effect of regular exercise on blood pressure
Theme 2: Effect of regular exercise on lipid levels
Theme 3: Effect of regular exercise on attitudes toward physical exercise
Parker et al. (2015)
- Regular aerobic exercises lower blood pressure.
- Aerobic exercise lowers lipid levels.
- Adherence to prescribed aerobic exercise routines is inconsistent, as patients are often discouraged by the fast-paced nature of the activity.
Wayne et al. (2016)
- Yoga has the same effect as aerobic exercise in terms of lowering blood pressure.
- Yoga has an insignificant effect on lipid levels.
- Patients with heart disease are receptive to yoga, citing that it is easier to follow and perform.
- Combining yoga and aerobic exercise shows greater benefit than just aerobic exercise or yoga alone.
- Effect of combined yoga and aerobic exercise on lipid levels is similar to just aerobic exercise alone.
- Attitudes are neither measured nor assessed.
The sample provided above illustrates the usefulness of a synthesis matrix. For one, it allows the user to identify and record the most important information from the sources. This can be thought of as a way to summarize the information. For another, the matrix arranges the information by data in a way that makes tracing relations between them easier. For example, aligning the information by theme allows the user to determine where sources agree, disagree, and complement each other as well as where more information is warranted. In the end, the synthesis matrix is like a canvas that enables the researcher to visualize the body of knowledge as it currently stands.
A synthesis matrix can be conventionally defined as a document in the form of a table that makes organizing and simplifying the presentation of information possible. This table enables the researcher to arrange information from sources so that their most salient points and their connections to each other are clear. While writing a literature review is difficult, the synthesis matrix can help with the process, thus saving the researcher a lot of time and energy as well as lending a great deal of clarity.
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Central Michigan University. (2021, August 4). Conducting a literature review: Synthesize . https://libguides.cmich.edu/lit_review/LR_synthesize
Cooper, H. and Hedges, L. V. (2011). Research synthesis as a scientific process. In H. Cooper, L. V. Hedges, and J. C. Valentine (Eds.), The handbook of research synthesis and meta-analysis (pp. 3-18). Russell Sage Foundation.
Johns Hopkins University. (2021). Synthesize . https://guides.library.jhu.edu/lit-review/synthesize
Oxford Dictionary. (2021a). Synthesis. In Oxford Dictionary . Retrieved September 8, 2021, from https://www.lexico.com/definition/Synthesis
Oxford Dictionary. (2021b). Matrix. In Oxford Dictionary . Retrieved September 8, 2021, from https://www.lexico.com/definition/matrix
University of Arizona. (2021). Synthesis matrix. https://writingcenter.uagc.edu/synthesis-matrix