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Research: Making Room for the Process and the Product
Teaching Research skills to 6th graders was one of my more daunting tasks and one with which I struggled the most. When I realized that my frustration level (why weren’t they getting this?) matched my students’ (Why is she making us do this?) I knew I was doing something, if not everything, wrong.
Research isn’t one, but many, concepts
My first years of teaching, I didn’t realize that there were a discrete set of skills attached to research. I was like the students in that we only conceptualized “Research” with a capital “R” as a finished product, and missed that it was an ongoing process.
Recipe for Research
But before that finished product, consider the skills we may take for granted that students need to learn along the way.
- What is my question?
- How do I find sources?
- How do I take notes?
- How do I indentify that will be helpful?
- How do I judge sources?
- How do I use an index? A table of contents?
- What are databases?
- How do I narrow or broaden my search?
- What are search terms?
- How do I use them?
- How do I Paraphrase? Quote? Synthesize?
- How do I Skim? Scan? Take notes?
- What is plagiarism? How do I avoid doing it?
- How do I write an introduction—hooking the reader and sharing what I’ll be writing about?
- How do I write a clear and engaging thesis statement?
- How do I form logical body paragraphs with clear transitions that support my thesis?
- How do I write a compelling and summative conclusion?
- How do I accurately cite my sources?
Posing a Compromise/Solution
Observing my Special Education co-teacher modifying the research process for her students, I took a lot of my lesson planning from her examples. As always, the way a special education teacher works with her students can be instructive for what is good teaching for all students.
Here’s my offer at a solution which I feel is appropriate, especially when students are just being introduced to research and mastery is not expected. (This brings up a whole other can of worms—how do we decide, articulate, and share when students should master a certain skill?)
I did my research unit toward the end of the year, let students pick any topic in Social Studies we had studied (thus making it an end-of-the-year review when we all shared our research findings), and taught the discrete skills as discrete skills. Each day held a new mini-lesson, some practice time, and after practice time, students did some work with a peer to discuss it. Then I still had about half the period for new stuff.
We all pre-research-- maybe even through Google—to find out if our question has an answer. Why shouldn’t our student researchers do the same thing? I devoted a couple of days to “pre research” so students could get a sense of whether their question was too broad, too narrow, too difficult. That way they entered into the “actual” process with a little confidence and a little preview on which to build their knowledge.
I helped students organize their research in the following way:
1 BIG Question—What do I want to know more about?
2 Sub Questions—What do I need to know in order to answer my BIG Question?
This format helped set them up for organizational success. The answer to their BIG Question became their thesis statement, and the answers to the Sub Questions became the topic sentences that supported their thesis.
Some years, if we were especially pressed for time, I didn’t require them to do the whole paper—just the introduction, topic sentences of their body paragraphs, and conclusion. That way I could assess the research and the thinking, and the (beginning of) writing. The real thinking happens when they have the information collected, and then need to give it new meaning.
This process proved to be beneficial to both my students and myself. I started seeing better skill development and better engagement and products with prouder, more eager to share, more research-y feeling students. So those qualities became my finished product.
Teachers: how do you teach research in your classroom? What do you struggle with and what successes can you share?
Non-Teachers: When you have problems to solve and questions to answer in your own lives, do you use any “research skills”?
For more about teaching research skills in your classroom, use the following resources from NYPL: