Today’s learners need to be independent learners, able to ask the right questions and find the right answers. Developing students’ research skills has therefore become an essential part of preparing them for higher education or for the challenges of modern adulthood.
Although online resources appear to make research easier than it’s ever been, this is not necessarily the case. Many students are still incapable of finding worthwhile information, or of processing it correctly once they have it. Downloadable material has made plagiarism an attractive option, although some students simply copy and paste because they don’t know any better way. In the long-term, this defective researching technique won’t help them to answer any of school or life’s big questions.
To develop a student’s research skills means teaching a few basic procedures: how to ask guiding questions; how to identify useful and reliable resources; and how to make sense of new information.
Although most of this article will focus on using the Internet, school libraries still offer students a wealth of great content. Books remain an invaluable research option, especially for students who don’t have ready access to a computer or who need to study while travelling. Students must learn how to use an index, and be able to scan – in the old fashioned sense – headings and images, in order to quickly identify relevant material. They will also need to know how to use a photocopier, so that they can highlight and edit key information.
What are you looking for?
The first step in good research practise is to identify exactly what information is needed, and this usually means asking the right questions. What, exactly, is the search intending to find? Teachers may want to see their students provide guiding questions for their research before they hit the books or computers.
If the assignment topic is, for example, “Causes of the American Civil War,” there is no point in simply searching for general sites about the war. While this might be a good first step, in the sense that the student can gain an overview of the event, it should not be the end of the process. To begin with, resources of this nature will have far more information than the student needs, and some of it will only confuse the issue.
This is especially true of Wikipedia. Students should be taught that, although Wikipedia can be a wonderful starting place for facts and figures, it is too comprehensive and wordy in many cases. It is also second hand information, and students need to look for the ‘source’. Students can, however, use the links at the foot of an article to find original and more authoritative material on the topic.
Students who need a simple introduction to a topic can also try this trick: google the key words – “civil war causes” – and then add “kids”. This technique will invariably call up reliable sites designed expressly for students.
If a specific question is being searched for, enclose it in quotation marks so that the search engine identifies the entire phrase. It’s a good idea to also show students a few basics of Boolean logic, so that unnecessary sites can be eliminated and searches can be refined.
Can you trust this resource?
There are a few basic questions that need to be asked of any potential resource. Is the name of the site a familiar source of knowledge, such as National Geographic, or NY Times? Is it associated with any commercial enterprise which might color its presentation of facts, or is there any other evidence of possible bias? Is the name of the author listed, and what are his or her credentials? Is a date provided for when the information was written? It is all too easy to find what appears to be reliable information, only to find that it is now out of date.
Finally, does the resource have any outside links embedded, or a detailed bibliography? A good researcher will follow up on these to ensure that there has been no unreliable paraphrasing, and that the site’s material has come from a reputable source. It is also most important to support every piece of research with a second opinion. Even if a site – or book – seems to be authoritative, mistakes do happen, and potential bias or selectivity can’t be detected unless the same information is also found elsewhere.
What do you do with your new information?
Students need to check that they have enough information to successfully answer the guiding questions and address the topic. They will need to have at hand the key events or facts, have supporting details which show a depth of knowledge, and have a clear understanding of why things happened and what they meant to everyone involved. A quick way of doing this is to highlight different parts of their downloaded or noted information in different colors. For instance, highlight all facts about events or activities in red; all tools and techniques used in blue; and all meanings and motivations in green or purple. Each piece of information should have supporting material highlighted in the other two colors.
As an example, consider the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is known that Adam Lanza drove to the school and shot lots of teachers and students. A good researcher will also want to know what kind of car he drove and what specific weapons were used (tools and techniques). He or she will also want to know how Adam and his victims felt, and what his motives for the assault might have been. With a bit of practice, each of the three areas of information should have researchers asking if they have supporting facts in the other two areas.
As with all worthwhile skills, true mastery comes not so much from the teaching of it, but from its repeated application. The best help that a teacher can give is to allow students to research again and again, while guiding them and refining their technique. Research is always a work in progress.