Inquiring with Students: What Do or Can “Good” Research Projects Look Like?

Responses from Ms. Rust's 2nd and 3rd period students

Responses from Ms. Rust’s 2nd and 3rd period students

We have just started a new inquiry unit with Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust and her students in 12 British Literature/Composition; although the course is identified as a senior level course, most of the students are juniors due to the nature of the IB curriculum.    We wanted to give students an opportunity to go deep with a research project and have opportunities to develop their own research questions and target processes and skills they identified as areas of personal need. We’re using Stripling’s Model of Inquiry as our framework while pulling in the affective aspects of Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process model.  After surveying students on their topics of interest, we also asked them to identify information literacy and technology skills they felt confident about as well as areas of need (see 2nd period and see 3rd period).  We then decided to ask students the following questions:

  • What is a good research project?
  • What does/what can it look like?
  • What qualities does/should a good research project have?

These questions are seemingly simple, but reading the students’ responses reminds me of the complexity of prior experiences, perceptions, and connotations associated with words like “good” and “research”.    I love that reading students’ responses forces me to rethink my own perceptions and criterion for identifying quality research projects and how I conceptualize research, especially when I think of it more broadly as information seeking behavior in a variety of contexts—K-12 school, real-world, the workplace, and academia.

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Sarah collected the responses from our students this past Friday via index cards, and I then compiled them over the weekend.  You can read our students’ responses here in this Google doc; I’ve also enclosed a visualization in this post of their responses.  A few initial reactions of patterns I noticed in their responses:

  • While many students referenced a traditional paper, an overwhelming number of students indicated that images and multimedia were essential to a “good” research project.
  • Most students felt that research projects should be more than a traditional paper and that multimedia formats like Prezi and videos were valid and in some cases, superior, forms of a “text.”
  • Some students stressed quality and quantity of facts while others felt that a person’s insights and understandings were equally, if not more so, important.
  • The influence of the Schaffer Writing Program that has been in place here for a few years at NHS was reflected in the references to CDs (concrete details) and CMs (commentaries).
  • Several students felt the topic should be interesting and of importance to both the writer and the reader of the project/paper.
  • Quite a few students stressed the importance of organization while others mentioned citations and appropriate references to reliable sources although a few shared they wanted more freedom to use alternative sources of information that might be traditional “authoritative” sources.
  • Several students discussed the importance of “depth” in the quality and scope of the project.

I can’t help but wonder what we might glean if we start inquiry units or initial research projects with questions like these to see where our students are and their perceptions.  I also believe this type of exercise can be a springboard in engaging students in the process of instructional design, including the design and criterion for formative and summative assessments; it can also be a conversation starter about how context might determine our responses and how we define “good” in different information seeking tasks and settings.

How might your students define research and what counts as a “good” or effective research project?  Your teachers?  Your administrators?  I’d love to hear from you if you have posed these sorts of questions in your learning community.

Connecting and Assessing Individualized Independent Reading with Paired Book Chats, Collaborative Thinking, and Big Group Share

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Last year, Jennifer Lund and I worked with a small group of Language Arts teachers to pilot an independent reading component to their courses.  This initiative focused on providing students a dedicated day a week (most selected Wednesday) to read any text of their choice for an entire class period.   We worked with teachers and students to provide targeted readers’ advisory, individualized and small group recommendations, and ideas and strategies for formative assessments; we also documented best practices and interviewed students about their learning experiences.  This year, all Language Arts teachers who teach Honors and College Prep courses are implementing the independent reading time component into their curriculum and class time.

We’re continuing last year’s efforts and striving to work with faculty more closely to implement creative and meaningful formative and summative assessments of students’ literacy experiences.  We know from other colleagues who teach Language Arts that teachers sometimes struggle to find ways to either help tie together so many different readings that are ongoing at any given time; others wonder how they might connect the independent reading students are doing to larger class thematic studies.

Sarah Rust was one of our Language Arts teachers who was interested in the written conversations strategies we introduced to staff early in 2014 and has been playing with her own variations of these strategies.  Today, her 2nd and 3rd period students met with us in our Learning Studio area (in progress!) to engage students in:

1.  Paired book chats about the books they are currently reading for independent reading (IR)

2.  Helping students connect their current individual readings to four larger ongoing class themes:  perceptions, justice, identity, and conformity.

3.  Bringing together students in small groups to share their thematic connections and collaboratively develop a broad statement about specific themes based on their texts and shared insights.

We’d like to share with you an overview of how the activity flowed today with her two classes this morning and some initial reflections/observations.  Yesterday, the students were asked to complete a short homework assignment in which they were asked to do some brief guided reflections to bring to class today as a springboard for conversation; she refers to this set of guiding questions as the Book Talk Prep Form.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

After doing a quick check of student work as they arrived in the Learning Studio area (formerly Fiction as you may notice from our photos), Sarah first reviewed the procedures and tips for engaging in a paired book chat.  After making sure every student had a partner and giving students an opportunity to move themselves to a partner if needed, the discussions were on!   Many students referred back to both their book chat prep form as well as their texts (mostly print but some eBooks on phones).   While students were encouraged to focus on discussing with their partner, we noticed some students engaging in a larger group discussion at their tables.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

After the first five minutes or so, Sarah paused the student conversations to remind them to slow down and encourage them to go more deeply into their discussions; she also provided some tips on talking about thematic connections and engaging in some higher level questions they might ponder as part of the conversation.  This scaffolding was helpful for those students who might have been less experienced with these types of book chats and who needed some gentle support.

After students had chatted roughly five additional minutes, we paused again to review instructions for the next phase of the activity.  Sarah distributed sticky notes and provided a short template to help students think about how their books related to one of the four larger thematic themes of class study (justice, perceptions, identity, and conformity).  Students had about five minutes to compose a rough working statement about how their book embodied one of those four themes; students discussed ideas with their partners and peers at their table and when needed, conferred with Sarah for clarification or a short think aloud with her to process their thoughts.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

Once students completed their rough statements on the sticky notes, they then got up and moved to tables with large post it notes that served as “parking lots” for each of the four themes.  Because “identity” was a popular theme in both classes, we created a second parking lot for this theme on the fly.   Once students had grouped themselves by them and shared their sticky note statement in the “parking lot” on the jumbo post-it, each student shared his/her statement.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

Interestingly enough, the 2nd period students all chose to stand as they talked while the 3rd period students immediately seated themselves at the table for the shared conversations.

We then asked students to come up with a collaboratively crafted statement about their interpretation of the theme based on their shared statements rooted in the individual readings/texts.    We chose to use our Steelcase Verb whiteboards and easels for students to record their group statement.

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

With the 2nd period, Sarah provided the recap of student statements…

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

 

…but for our 3rd period, we all decided to let students share their work from their tables and discuss the group statement they had crafted.  This second variation definitely had a better flow and student engagement in terms of their large group share aloud component—we love being co-learners in these experiences!

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

IR Book Chats and Collaborative Thinking About Themes

The student response was positive, and we loved having the opportunity to use our new learning space and furniture to support Ms. Rust and her students in these conversations about texts and inquiry.  We are looking forward to our continued collaboration with Sarah this year, and we’ll be incorporating this kind of work into an upcoming inquiry/research unit we’re doing later this fall with her classes.  We invite you to think about how you might use these strategies and structures for your own independent reading program or how you might adapt them for content area study!

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Framing and Developing an Inquiry Stance for Independent Research Projects

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A heartfelt thank you to The Thacher School Dean of Faculty Jeff Hooper and the wonderful participants of our workshop today on supporting students in independent research/capstone projects using strategies and models for inquiry. The first half of our workshop began with using the write around text on text strategy to help us explore and unpack our experiences, challenges, and successes with students and research projects.  We began by engaging in a write around these questions and data:

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This was the first time using this strategy with adult learners, and I was so impressed with the depth of thought, questions, participation, and engagement by the faculty in the workshop—they rocked! Take a look at their collaborative work in the gallery below or for a larger view of the photos, browse here in my Flickr album:

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Small Group Debrief and Large Group Share
See our collaborative Google Doc for our questions/wonderings, big ideas, and new ideas/insights that grew out of our 25 minute write-around.  We engaged in small group discussion and focused on these three areas of reflection that we all eventually contributed to a Google Doc to pull together our experience prior to the second half of our workshop which was a short presentation on models and strategies for inquiry that related to our questions, wonderings, and areas of challenge.

Presentation Slides/PDF

 

Resources of Interest

Librarians and Teachers as Instructional Partners: Written Conversations with Write Arounds Text on Text for Inquiry, Participation, and Social Construction of Meanings

Many thanks to the gracious librarians of ISLE for inviting me to join them for their summer retreat and for the opportunity to share the structure of writing around text on text for inquiry driven learning with students of all ages.  We had a wonderful hour of sharing, learning, and thinking about applications for this strategy for inquiry focused activities with our learners!

Resources of Interests

Thank you to Sarah Clark for her idea of using this structure for peer editing for creative and academic writing as well as Elisabeth Abarbanel for her suggestion of using this as  medium working with students and summer reading!

Advances in Citation Management Technologies: How Do They Shape Inquiry and Literacies?

Two years ago, I adopted EasyBib as my primary citation subscription service for a multitude of reasons, but the driving factor was to spend less time on the mechanics of citation and more time helping students and teachers dwell in research projects from an inquiry oriented stance.  Although we had always had high database usage statistics, that did not always translate into those sources finding their way into student projects and papers to the extent we would expect given our high number of hits; we knew from observation in the past that the primary reason was the amount of time and struggle it took students to create entries using the database wizard with another citation tool.  While we very much liked the original citation tool we had been using, our students were not coming with enough prior knowledge or usage for it to be the best fit for them as learners.    Within the first year of adoption, we noticed some significant changes:

1.  Students were not only citing more database sources in their bibliographies, but they were also incorporating the database content more into the body of their paper as paraphrased and directly quoted material.

2.  Because less instructional and working time was spent on citation mechanics with EasyBib, students were spending more times reading their articles critically and having opportunities to reflect on the content individually and with their peers in small groups.

3.  Teachers were more willing to devote longer chunks of  time and take more of an inquiry stance on research projects since they knew the citation piece of the learning experience would be more seamless and would not take as much time for students to complete.  Being able to invest more time in designing  inquiry driven projects using Stripling’s model of inquiry and helping teachers move along that continuum was exciting and energizing; for some teachers, it was also a pathway to pushing back against the pressures of testing.

At the time of our adoption in midwinter, we thought we had jumped light years ahead by being able to download .ris files to then import into EasyBib.  I have vivid memories of students AND teachers clapping when I showed them this fast new method that  felt like a revolution in citation.   That fall, we saw a glimpse of the next wave of citation innovation when we trialed Sage databases and saw one-click integration of direct export for the first time with EasyBib.  Not that it was terrible to download the .ris file with the publication data and then upload it to EasyBib, but to see that citation could be done so seamlessly in one click was a tantalizing possibility to imagine for other databases.

In August 2013, my colleague Jennifer Lund and I were overjoyed when we learned that Gale Virtual Reference Library and Gale Literature Resource Center had been re-configured to offer the ease of one-click citation export and integration with EasyBib. That feature was then enhanced to be even a little cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing in December.  Our only disappointment was that the feature was not yet integrated into our Gale “In Context” databases.  Because we are fortunate to have access to quite a few of these databases in that particular series, we often felt frustrated trying to explain to our students why the one-click integration was available in some Gale databases but not in others.    For young teens who did not have the same schema we did as experienced researchers, this discrepancy was sometimes difficult for them to grasp even though we had created tutorial videos to reinforce the “how to” steps we showed in person.  Worse, this feature was not only missing from the EBSCO databases that we were using as part of our research guides, but the direct export feature failed to deliver the file with the .ris extension essential for EasyBib to read the data file, so students also had to remember to rename the file and add the .ris extension.   For fledgling researchers, these differences and the appropriate steps for exporting citations from one database to another, even those under the same publisher, were sometimes challenging to remember.

student-resource-center-easybibexport-march14As of this week, the beautiful one click citation feature is now available in all the Gale In Context databases.   I literally felt like dancing around the library when I discovered the platforms had been migrated and sooner than I anticipated!  Some of our students came in this morning and said, “Ms. Hamilton, did you know Student Resources in Context now has that one click choice?!”  Jennifer and I were beaming as we discussed the ways this small but important change might help us in our larger efforts to reframe, disrupt,  and transform research experiences here at NHS as acts of inquiry across the curriculum.  If you are in a school that might be facing challenges of a large student body and faculty with a premium on spaces and time for research both within the library and the school building at large as well as curricular and testing mandates, a technology that is seemingly so simple can be a catalyst in how you budget your time for research instruction.   Now that we will have consistency in citation export within our  suite of Gale databases, we anticipate less confusion with this piece of research and more student confidence in using both the databases as well as EasyBib.  Now that we will be spending less time explaining why there are differences in the steps for exporting the citations, we are excited that hopefully more time will be spent incorporating learning experiences that will give students time to engage in deeper inquiry  and to think more deliberately about their research and composing (in whatever format the final product takes).  Of course, we hope that EBSCO will transform their direct export feature soon to be consistent with the Gale experience our students now have.

bibcardWhen we think about the catalysts for richer learning experiences that can shift perceptions about research as a one shot activity to something that is a natural part of an inquiry-driven culture of learning, we know that school culture, collaborative partnerships and strategies, physical space and the design drivers that inform those spaces, testing and curricular mandates, and pedagogical shifts are all important points of access.  As we try to help our students acquire the academic capital and citizenship skills they need as learners who attribute and share information in appropriate and ethical ways, I wonder how shifts in citation technology will impact learners and research experiences in ways we don’t yet foresee. Think about how approaches to citation have changed in your own lifetime (some of us more than others) due to the technologies available for both citing and accessing digitized information sources.  I honestly don’t remember much about crafting bibliographies as a newbie researcher in my junior year although I have vivid memories of painstakingly crafting footnotes, a tedious task.  In my senior year of high school as well as my undergraduate years, I relied heavily on the MLA handbook and resources provided by teachers/professors.   When I began teaching in 1992, my students used index cards and a MLA handbook to cite sources cite sources.  By the time I was a technology specialist in my district’s Technology Services department in 1999 , a free version of NoodleTools had arrived on the scene, and I was tinkering around with that before moving to a paid version purchased by my district.   As a graduate student between 2001-2005, I relied heavily on my NoodleTools subscription to help me format my citations for scholarly research; at the same time, I began incorporating NoodleTools into my instruction at Cherokee High first as an English teacher and then as one of the school’s librarians.   I marvel when I think about the changes in citation technology (or lack of) and how it impacted my work as a teacher and researcher over twenty years.

I can’t help but wonder what the implications are for learners (K12, undergraduate, and even graduate) who do AND who don’t have access to these technologies for research and learning.  How does access or lack thereof impact the learner experience and students’ information literacy skills? How do these changes impact the ways people compose research-based writing and literacy practices as readers of informational texts in a variety of mediums and formats?  How might less emphasis on the mechanics of citation change people’s perceptions and connotations of “research”? How do these technologies and access or lack of access to them function as sponsors of literacy?  These are questions I’ll be pondering as I continue to think about the ways libraries function as sponsors of literacy in their communities and learning ecosystems.