Saturday, April 14, 2018

Helping Students Research

Good morning colleagues! This week researching in class came up two different times. The first time research came up was when my former teammate needed some advice to help students analyze Civil War historical figures. The second time research was in a conversation was talking about some students that are ineligible for track because of failing a research assessment in math.

It is very evident that students struggle with researching a topic. I think the main reason is that students are overwhelmed with information as they investigate, because they expect instant results (instant gratification), and because learners have never been taught HOW and WHY they should research a topic.

This is not a blog post where I wag my finger at other people and their inadequate teaching of research in their class. I am less than a year out from being a Social Studies teacher myself, and I will own that I did a poor job teaching my students. This post is, instead, about how I think we can get students to research thoroughly.

I believe that this problem can be resolved through teaching students advanced Google searching skills. If a student is studying Abraham Lincoln, there are 10,500,000 results. TEN MILLION RESULTS! What if the information that they need is hiding on page 36 of the results?! I've long been a proponent of teaching students advanced Google searching skills. I haven't always been the best at explaining it to the kids, but it's essential to help students dig through the waste of the internet to find the diamond. I even put together an infographic of my (personally) most used Google search terms when I research. If a student is analyzing Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on Google, there are 646,000 results. "Abraham Lincoln" "Gettysburg Address" has 8,650 results. "Abraham Lincoln" "Gettysburg Address" has 7,550 results. Both of those searches have many results to wade through, but it's approximately 98% fewer results than the original search AND all results come from an educational or government website. "Abraham Lincoln" "Gettysburg Address" has only 343 results. We have to help students "dig" to find the information that they need. If you have your students doing general research, I would encourage you to force students to find information from .edu and .gov pages, and maybe even ask them to use a reputable news source.

If you want students to slow down as they work, SLOW THEM DOWN and give them time. I would encourage you to do a class research project at the beginning of the year. Work together as a class using the same search queries and search results. Have students look at the author to identify bias and to evaluate the source. Have students discuss what makes a result better than another. Force students to find a wide variety of sources as they research. Then, as students get better at slowing down, start giving them more of a challenge. Give them questions that cannot be "Googled," i.e., have them form an opinion about the subject and find evidence to support their answer. It makes it much more difficult to plagiarize, AND if they're passionate about the topic (or their opinion), they will invest and want to find the answers.

Why should we make our students investigate a variety of topics? I think the better question is, do we want our students to be self-sufficient, well-rounded, life-long learners? I feel like every teacher would answer yes to that question. But not every student is going to be an academic for the rest of their lives. Some kids may end up as a mechanic, a doctor, or a secretary. No matter what occupation someone has in the future, they will likely have to do some research. We seek more efficient methods for doing our job, and in an ever-changing technological world, how we do our jobs changes. We have to be able to adapt to those changes through making and understanding that evolution. So after we conquer the "why" with our students, we have to teach them the HOW. Students need to learn how to use advanced skills with Google searching, they need to understand what a good source looks like, they need time management skills through assigning small chunks of work at a time, and they need to cite the sources that they use to avoid plagiarizing someone else's work. In the end, if you want students to be excellent researchers, you have to teach them to be thorough and thoughtful researchers. Never expect that the teacher they had the previous year showed them anything about research. Take ownership of the students that you have, right now, in your class.

As I wrote out my blog, I realized there was an extra problem - meeting the needs of ALL of our students. This problem was always my most challenging. I did a decent job at differentiating and accommodating my assignments, except for research. You have to scaffold inquiry for students, whether that's finding and vetting websites for them, creating research cloze notes, or even putting students into homogeneous groups for a research project. I would also think about doing small mini-lessons for research or even severely chunking a student's time in your class as they research. It is hard for kids to stay focused past 20 minutes. How can you use that to your advantage? Can you make 20-minute research blocks available for your students so that they're not doing the same thing for 60 minutes?

Hopefully, this gives you some food for thought as you are thinking about an upcoming research project (or how you can improve a previous activity)! Thanks for reading... I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website