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Academic Coaching & Writing

III. A Synthesis Matrix as a Tool for Analyzing and Synthesizing Prior Research

Sep 01, 2013 by Dr Sally

How do you pull together a body of literature? Often people become overwhelmed trying to organize information from many different sources. The mistake that many dissertation writers make when they try to write a review of literature is they describe and summarize individual sources rather than analyzing and synthesizing them. Critical analysis and synthesis involves consideration of the conceptual and methodological strengths and weaknesses of the studies you discuss, relating the sources to each other and to your proposed research, and identifying areas of convergence and divergence as well as unanswered questions that your study addresses.

There are a number of tools that can help you analyze and synthesize your key sources. In this blog, you will learn about using a synthesis matrix to organize the sources in your literature review and integrate them into a unique interpretation that not only serves as the foundation of your study but also contributes to the dialogue in your field and establishes your credibility as a scholar. There are limitless ways of structuring a matrix. This blog will provide several examples of how to construct a synthesis matrix.

Example 1. The first example is a synthesis matrix (or table) organized by the key studies on your specific topic. Identify six to twelve studies that are closely related to the focus of your study and that you will use as the foundation for your proposed research. In the first column along the vertical axis of the table, list the author and date of publication for each study. Then create columns to identify:

  • the purpose or research questions the authors posed,
  • the method used in the study,
  • characteristics of the sample,
  • the major findings of the study,
  • the main ideas or themes distilled from the findings,
  • how the findings confirm those of other studies (similarities), and
  • how the findings differ from other studies or offer information not found in other sources

You may download Example 1 of a completed synthesis matrix by filling out the form on the right.

The example was adapted from a study conducted by an ACW client, Karen, several years ago. Karen was studying older homeless women and found that most of the prior research had looked at homeless men, and the literature that included women tended to look at young homeless women. She identified only seven studies that included or focused on older homeless women. Using this matrix, Karen was able to identify the major themes or issues that had been investigated in relationship to older homeless women. Then she was able to organize her review of literature around these themes: the pathway to homelessness; the profile of older homeless women; lack of housing options; lack of relationships; victimization of older homeless women; and, the remarkable resiliency of these women.

Example 2. The headings you use in your synthesis matrix may vary depending on the nature of your study and the argument you wish to make. For example, if you are conducting a qualitative study and are not certain what theory or theories your findings may support, you might consider adding a column for explanatory theories and constructs to help you think about the conceptual frameworks that other researchers have found useful. In some quantitative studies, you may want a column for instruments to justify the use of particular instruments in your own study. Below is a matrix that may be useful in reviewing the methods and limitations of quantitative studies.

Author&Date Variables Sample Instrument Limitations
SOURCE 1        


You may download Example 2, a variant of the above matrix, along with the author’s synthesis statement by filling out the form on the right.

In this example, Patti was looking at the relationship between principal leadership and teacher efficacy. The prior findings were inconclusive about this relationship, and Patti proposed to use a new instrument for principal leadership to help clarify the impact principals’ behaviors have on teacher efficacy. You will see that Patti included columns for the specific variables studied in each of her sources, the specific scales used for teacher efficacy, the specific scales used for leadership, and how each of her sources related to her current study. Think carefully about the best way to analyze the sources in your study and adjust the column headings accordingly.

Example 3. As you will learn in the next blog, effective literature reviews are often organized by themes. A third type of a synthesis matrix organizes the key studies by themes. Once you have identified the major themes, you may wish to organize your studies as shown in the table below to conceptualize how the findings of each of your sources relate to the major themes that you have identified in the literature and to help you synthesize this information in your review of literature.

Theme Source1 Source2 Source3 Source4


North Carolina State University Writing and Speaking Tutorial Service Tutors has created an excellent example of a matrix and synthesis statement for a literature review on World War II and its effect on women.

You may download Example 3 by filling out the form at the right.

As you are preparing to write your review of the literature, you might find this structure useful as a next step after you have read the key studies and flushed out the themes that pertain to your proposed research.

Once you have analyzed and synthesized the current research, you are ready to begin drafting your review of literature.  The next blog will review different ways to structure your review.

  • Roxanne Elliott says:

    Apr 19, 2015 at 8:26 am

    Great Resource

  • Mary Grace says:

    Apr 21, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    thank you for such an informative post which is of great help in accomplishing my literature review..May I know the full name of Dr. Sally? just need it for the proper citation in my bibliography. Thank you very much

  • Fatima says:

    May 03, 2016 at 4:11 am

    Great resource! I had been struggling with organizing my review, now I think i understand how to do it!

  • Ken says:

    Mar 22, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    Hi, Thanks for the information given, quite insightful. I would like to know how to pick headings in a particular research topic, of medical concern.

  • Shelley Brown says:

    Mar 28, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    Thank you for this tool

  • Julie says:

    Jul 29, 2017 at 12:54 am

    Excellent advice

  • Deborah says:

    Sep 12, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Thank you so much. I've been struggling with my literature review. I really wanted it to make sense but was frustrated about how do go about it. I'm so glad I found this site. Thank you so very much.

  • Ngozi Ibewuike says:

    Oct 27, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    For Lit Review, the Matrix is very useful in organizing what you take away from your reading. I use it religiously. thanks.

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