Teaching Students How to do Online Research

7/1/2003 By: Rosemary Shaw

When I first started teaching technology, I focused more on the technical side, having my students learn how to insert pictures, how to add sounds, and, in general, how to do all the fancy buttons and bells.

It was the least satisfying experience in my entire teaching career. I also found out that the students weren't happy either. They had made some amazing hypermedia projects, including Web pages, but the results lacked substance. Surprisingly, the students instinctively knew that without the substance to back up the project and without the heart there really is no project.

The next year, I went to my principal and said, "I want to redesign my class. Instead of teaching technology, I want to teach research. "

Since then, no matter what project I have planned, I first teach research skills. I found a list of the six steps to online research, and have used these steps ever since in every class I teach.

First, I make my students learn the list of the six steps to online research.

  • Questioning
  • Planning
  • Gathering
  • Sorting & Sifting
  • Synthesizing
  • Evaluating

I talk about each step and what it means. I'll discuss each below.

Questioning

The student must understand the assignment before she can begin to ask questions about the project.

The idea is to make sure the student knows what the teacher wants them to research. Once they understand the topic, then they should brainstorm and write down some questions about the topic that interest them. They can talk to their parents and to friends and even other teachers about the topic and find out what others might find interesting.

This is a great time to come up with key words to use with search engines.

Planning

Once they have some questions, then they start to plan out your project. How long is it going to take? Where should they look for information? How many different sources do they need? Will they need to work with others? If they have to Email experts, how will they get their addresses?

Gathering

While it might seem the easiest thing to get all your information from the Internet, it is not the best thing to do. There is a lot of misleading and even erroneous information out on the Web. It is a great place to get information, but it should never be the only place to get information. I tell them to make sure they go to the library to check out books on their subject. In addition, they should use as many primary sources as possible.

Primary sources include diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers. Memoirs and autobiographies are also types of primary sources. Important primary sources are records, such as births, deaths, marriages, permits and licenses and census data. Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures or video recordings can also be considered primary sources.

Primary sources can be found on the Internet. For example, for anyone researching the Civil War period, Duke University's Civil War Women has copies of diaries, letters and documents on the web. For more contemporary topics, try C-Span for information that is considered primary. It also offers sound and video clips.

I also encourage my students to write as many experts as they can. I have found that NASA is wonderful about writing back. This year alone, we had three NASA engineers working with students via Email. Also, many university professors will write back.

Sorting and Sifting

Once they have gathered together many different sources, they need to put them in some sort of order. Sorting information into categories or even piles can be useful. While they do this, they can start to get rid of the information that they won't use. Also, if they have any information twice, or three times, they need to get rid of repeated information.

This is especially true of Internet resources. Many web page authors just cut and paste information they find on other sites. Do not use repeated information.

Synthesizing

Now that they have all you information gathered and sorted, they need to put it together into one report. There are many different ways to do this. One idea is to do Concept Mapping. To do a Map, they write the main idea in the center of the page — it may be a word or a phrase — then place related ideas on branches that fan out from this central idea.

There are also types of software that help with concept mapping. Inspiration®, for Grade Six to Adult, and Kidspiration™, for Grades K — 5, are two that come to mind. Visit Inspiration Software for more. Also, for the Palm Handhelds, there is the Hi-CE PICoMap software.

I encourage them to also try clustering, which is a type of pre-writing that allows them to explore many ideas as soon as they occur. Like brainstorming or free-associating, clustering allows them to begin without clear ideas. There is also the tried and true outlining method. With an outline they first identify the topic, then create some main categories and then subcategories.

Evaluating

Once they have written your paper they have to read it and make sure it satisfies the requirement of the project. One can try to fix an off-target report, but one also has to be prepared to start all over again.

I encourage them that, while doing research, to please remember to make effective use of time online and in the library/media center. They must stay on task at all times. I also encourage them to use a wide variety of information sources, both print and non-print, and to take meaningful notes. I urge them to keep your information organized and to keep careful bibliographic records of all sources used and then remember to cite all sources!

One great tool to help keep your bibliographic records in correct form is NoodleTools . It's a suite of interactive tools designed to aid students and professionals with their online research. From selecting a search engine and finding some relevant sources, to citing those sources in MLA or APA style, NoodleTools makes online research easier!

Although some parts of NoodleTools are subscription-based, others are free. A free resource that I always show my students is QuickCite. QuickCite will help them to create MLA style sources for: Books, Encyclopedia articles, Magazine articles, Online Magazine articles, Newspaper Articles, Professional Web Pages, Personal Web pages, E-Mail messages, Interviews and even online discussion boards or forums. When students do intensive research, they should have books, articles, e-mail messages and interviews to cite!

I teach 6th, 7th and 8th grade students, and believe me, students are never too young to learn how to research and how to cite documents professionally. Below are some Web pages that some of my students researched and created.

Here's one called Space Week, about satellites:

And here is one, called Welcome, from the Walls project. I am partial to this one because one of the pictures was an heirloom belonging to the family of the student who wrote the article. She brought it in, and scanned it, which was a great little teacher for helping others learn to use the scanner. As a seventh-grader, she did a nice job.

Email: Rosemary Shaw

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