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Dear Diane, As a retired high school librarian I wanted to share my thoughts about how teachers can provide some meaningful and more personalized opportunities for high school students to engage in guided research during these times of inadequate distance learning. Here are my ideas for high school teachers of all disciplines.
Are you ready to try something new with your students in this time of distance learning? How about an assignment with extended value long after the Covid-19 pandemic ends? Allow me to offer some thoughts on the feasibility of guiding your students in a research project in the coming weeks and months.
As the weeks of home confinement and remote teaching and learning continue, I’m reminded of a recent letter I received from a former high school student who is now at Stanford Law School:
“In college and now in law school, understanding how to research has made me a more critical thinker, helping me to frame challenging questions and build thoughtful answers. In my career in academia, prior to law school, these analytical tools have enabled me to write and communicate more persuasively and to make better decisions that are grounded in evidence-based reasoning. Ultimately, experience with research fosters a willingness to interrogate sources and seek truth. At a time when misinformation is rampant, these practices are more important than ever.”
Teaching students how to engage in the research process is something I have done for a quarter century. As a recently retired high school librarian, I have been the lead author of three books on teaching the research process by guiding students in their work in both humanities and sciences. Here is how it can be accomplished online, with frequent and patient communication between you and your students. Below you will find key terms in quotations which Dr. Carol Kuhlthau of Rutgers University developed over 30 years of scholarship of her model of the information search process.
The first step “to initiate” a meaningful research project with your students is to introduce the concept of a” guided research project” in which the primary goal is two-fold: to answer the student’s research question and to enable the student to acquire a lifelong skill of how to do responsible, scholarly research by following a simple and straightforward process. Emphasize that this is not mainly about the content of their project but about learning the essential steps of a scholarly research process. This is an “introduction” phase in which students begin to think about a topic by talking with you, with their parents, friends, and themselves about topics of interest. It’s fine to investigate online for ideas, but the choice of topic must come from the students and may even be an outlying idea. Students will “feel uncertain” at first as they begin to search for relevant information.
When students have selected a possible topic they can explain how they arrived at their choice. The “selection” of topic will generally be broader and “less focused” at this point. Be patient and encourage your students to think about a question to search in their information hunt. At this point, students should display some” optimism” but may still have “vague thoughts” and ideas about how to proceed. Here, the teacher or librarian can give a list of possible places to look for “relevant information.” Possible locations that can be accessed online or in the student’s home include PBS programs, podcasts, newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with others, interrogation of three-dimensional objects such as photographs, paintings, textiles, and other works of art. A lesson in notetaking is appropriate at this stage of the process.
“Exploration” of possible sources is the most confusing and labor intensive phase in which your students must begin looking at materials to be handled, read, examined, listened to, and pondered. Often,” students feel frustrated” and will need guidance through their unformed and “vague thoughts as they seek relevant information.” Teachers and librarians can be most helpful here with one-on-one communication with each student. Students should be instructed in how to evaluate an information source for authenticity and reliability.
When ready to “formulate” a coherent path forward students are frequently joyous and excited because they’ve digested sufficient information and exhibit some clarity in their search while continuing to look for additional relevant information. Their thoughts are now more “focused” and their” interest is building.” During this stage of the process serious notetaking should be required. A research question should now be articulated.
During the next phase of “collection” the student becomes” more invested” in the project and will” display a sense of direction and confidence.” Most students now manifest increased interest while they switch from seeking relevant information to seeking “more pertinent information” that will help to answer their research question.
At this stage of collection students should be instructed in the technique of interrogating a source. Here is an example of the types of questions students may use interrogating a scientific study that Dan O’Connor of Rutgers taught me to ask:
What is the question, controversy, or problem driving the study?
Who or what group was being studied? Describe these people as much as possible, including their location, characteristics, and conditions.
How was the study executed? (What method was used, what kind of study, was done?).
What questions were addressed or asked in the study to generate data?
What was found in the study? What were the results of the study?
Each information source, whether in the humanities or sciences can be interrogated. Teachers can post some interrogation questions and students can create their own.
At this “presentation stage” students are prepared to “package” their topic, research question, and answers from pertinent information sources into a publicly shared document which has been agreed upon by the teacher and student. This presentation format could be a traditional research paper, video, performance, or three-dimensional piece. Interest in the subject will have increased as the student “documents” in presentation format.
Finally, “assessment” should come with both a “sense of accomplishment,” sometimes a little disappointment and perhaps surprisingly along with expressed exhaustion, an “increased self-awareness,” the realization that “I can do this!”
Kuhlthau’s information search process and the resulting student research will produce memories and lifelong skills which last well beyond this present time.