How Web Quests can Aid Learning and help to Develop Research Skills

WebQuests are an increasingly popular learning tool that can help to develop research and thinking skills. They offer students an authentic, inquiry based learning experience within a carefully scaffolded format. Because of their clear structure and their reliance on higher-level thinking instead of time-hungry resource gathering, the teacher is often cast in the role of facilitator, rather than instructor. This gives students an opportunity to take charge of their own learning, while working to strict guidelines.

As the name suggests, WebQuests rely heavily on Internet research, but suggested resources are provided so that students can concentrate on reading and note-taking for specific information. This gives more time for analytical and creative thinking, while teaching students a little of what constitutes a good resource. For teachers who are frustrated by their students’ over-reliance on Wikipedia or their inability to find the right information even after hours of ‘net-surfing, WebQuests can be a godsend.

There are many thousands of WebQuests currently available online, covering a vast range of topics. Many teachers are happy to use recommended examples from Questgarden or Rays Learning, but an increasing number of teachers are creating their own. A basic tool for doing this is available from Zunal, although to really learn the ins-and-outs of WebQuest creation, the online “WebQuest about WebQuests” by Bernie Dodge (the originator of the process) is a great place to start.

All WebQuests follow a strict six-part format: introduction, task, process, resources, evaluation, and conclusion. This does not mean that WebQuests are inflexible, however, as there is a great variety of possible approaches within each part of the system. Real world scenarios, role-play, and team-work are encouraged, and students can be engaged and challenged by an almost limitless number of task designs.

Introduction – The first part of a WebQuest is the ‘hook’ which introduces the topic, usually in the form of a problem which students need to solve. Typically, the introduction is framed as a real world question that empowers students to take action of some sort. For example, a Geography themed Quest might cast the student as a travel agent or member of an aide agency, or a Biology Quest might ask students to consider what can be done to prevent some animals from becoming endangered. The premise of the Quest needs to give students a purpose for their learning.

Task – Usually a problem-based focus question which can be resolved as a product of the students’ research. The task part of a WebQuest is the most crucial to get right, because this is what the students will actually be doing and / or creating. It should follow logically from the introduction, and offer opportunities for problem-solving and higher level thinking. A good task should be about understanding and using information, rather than about simply acquiring it.

Process – A step-by-step breakdown of the task. In this part, students are usually offered or assigned specific roles in order to focus their learning and to develop their emotional intelligence. One way of doing this might be to look at the task problem from different perspectives. For instance, if the problem was to analyse the effects of a major sporting event being staged in the students’ home town, a group assignment could see each student individually finding out how this might impact on accommodation, transportation, or media, before combining their results for a meaningful end product. A good example of how the process phase can be made effective is offered in this WebQuest from Tom March on the Tuskegee tragedy.

Resources – Most, though not necessarily all, of the resources provided to students will be web-based. These are decided on by the teacher beforehand, which allows students to focus on processing information rather than finding it. This is one of the most important aspects of any WebQuest, as students are compelled to recognise that true research means understanding the importance of specific information, rather than simply cutting-and-pasting bits that seem right. All students have access to the same resources, so plagiarism is impossible and achievement can be based on using data correctly. As in the Tuskegee example above, resources are commonly incorporated into the process phase of the WebQuest.

Evaluation – As part of the clear guidelines offered to learners, evaluation usually takes the form of a detailed rubric which is specific to the task. Online WebQuests always include some kind of assessment schedule, and some of these can be modified by teachers who are unfamiliar with creating their own. Above all, the evaluation should be as authentic as the rest of the WebQuest, offering students not only an understanding of what they need to accomplish, but also perhaps grading them according to something that relates to the topic, such as career rankings or orders of animals.

Conclusion – An opportunity for the whole group to debate or discuss what has been learned, and also a chance to take their learning further. A good WebQuest that involves some kind of call-to-arms should conclude with an opportunity for students to put their findings into action. Many teachers use this phase to have students write letters to newspapers or government officials, create pamphlets, or organize charity drives.

WebQuests are a great way to introduce a new area of learning, while developing key study skills. They can offer students the chance to take more control over their own education, and give teachers the opportunity to support and guide their students’ endeavours rather than orchestrate them. For this reason, WebQuests are best done in the classroom, though, of course, their web-based nature and clear structure also makes them ideal for extension work or homework. They should also demand extensive use of IT, and wherever possible should task students with creating spreadsheets and tables or using graphics programmes.

Although there are countless good examples available online, it is in the best interests of teachers to design their own WebQuests which can be used as a faculty resource for many years to come. Ultimately, students with experience of the WebQuest’s simple model should also be capable of writing their own. This would involve understanding the research process, asking the right sort of guiding questions, working towards meaningful outcomes, and demonstrating that they were well on the way to becoming life-long learners.