research

Holistic and Individualized Formative Assessment of Research and Inquiry Processes

For the last two weeks, our students have been immersed in investigating information and constructing new understandings as they have been composing their research design proposals, revising sections of their proposals, and doing additional research after focusing and narrowing their topics and research questions.  As they have gone back and forth in refining their topics and questions and doing the subsequent additional research, we’ve seen our students move back and forth between confusion/doubt/uncertainty/discomfort and clarity.  Most students are not used to doing this sort of deep dive with a topic, making their own choices about the topic and research questions, articulating how they demonstrating growth in their learning, or selecting their learning products; consequently, the messiness of choice and ownership of their projects has been a new experience (and uncomfortable to varying extents) for them.  Sarah Rust and I have also experienced a spectrum of emotions in this inquiry process as well;  we know our students will grow from these experiences yet we too feel some of that same uncertainty and frustration as our students when they wobble or stall in spite of our efforts to scaffold and support with individualized feedback, resources, and reflective questioning.   Like our colleagues Heather, Meg, Marci, and Cathy, we provide  them strategies and feedback that will propel them forward and give them the tools to self-help, but as we have told them, we cannot make the decisions for them or give them the answers.   We stay calm and reiterate that we are focused on how and what they are learning, not grades—of course, this discourse is a departure from the narrative they have heard their entire school lives in our test-driven culture.

The individualized and fluid nature of working with 50+ students who are all doing different topics is also a newer experience for us and definitely for the students.   Over the last two weeks, any given day has been a potpourri of joy, exasperation, delight, and doubt as students have drafted their research design proposals for their multigenre projects.  This kind of work is where the collaborative partnership Sarah and I have is critical because you have an instructional partner to be responsive to these kinds of learning experiences and individual student needs.  Because we both bring different strengths to the table and can process what we are observing with student work together, we are much better positioned to truly help our students than if we were doing this in a solitary or prescriptive, rigid way.

After receiving the drafts of their proposals for their projects, Sarah and I have employed a variety of strategies to personalize the feedback for each student at their points of need.  Here are some of the action steps we’ve tried:

Individualizing and Capturing Feedback Through Mail Merge and Databases

I created a database in Word of all of our students in 2nd and 3rd periods.  Data fields I created included:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • Class Period
  • Comments About the Narrowed/Focused Topic
  • Multigenre Products Students Selected
  • Publishing Platform of Virtual or Paper (Word/PDF)
  • General Notes (comments about student self-selected learning targets, what they know about their topic at this point, what they want to learn, research questions, their working bibliographies, and search terms/strategies.
  • Next Steps–specific tasks and suggestions to help the students move forward.  These action steps could also include requests for students to schedule 1:1 help or to participate in some of the small-group help sessions we set up in response to the patterns of thinking and gaps we saw in the proposals.

rust-feedback1

rust-feedback2

I went through each proposal and typed in my feedback for each student in the appropriate fields in the database document.   I then used the Mail Merge wizard in Word to create a “form letter” that imported this feedback and printed out the feedback documents for each student on colored paper or in color.  Once I printed completed feedback forms, I stapled them to the research design proposal draft and returned to the student as soon as possible for them so that they could move forward or make revisions.  I also provided a copy to Sarah so that she could begin developing a list of needs to address and to prioritize which students needed her help and areas of expertise.  The master database provides us an archived record of the formative assessment to use as we look at student growth; it is also easily accessible to reprint should a student lose his/her copy of the feedback form.

It did take quite a bit of time to methodically go through each proposal and to generate the personalized feedback.  However, I so appreciate the opportunity to engage in this sort of assessment because it helps me get to know the students as learners.  This work also improves my instruction because I can easily see patterns of understanding and confusion and helps me to be a more reflective and effective practitioner as well as instructional designer.

Conferencing/Coaching/Triage 1:1 and Small Group

help help help help 2

 

help help 3

Using this information as our starting point, Sarah and I have  been meeting with students the last few days (late last week and all of this week)to discuss the feedback we’ve provided them ; we use the feedback forms as a strategic entry point for face to face conference/coaching conversation with students.   We have been organizing our 1:1 meetings and small group sessions through a variety of mediums each day:

  • Students can sign up for specific individual help each day—we have used large post-it paper and our Verb dry erase boards as our parking lots for students to indicate they need assistance or have questions.
  • Students can sign up for small group help or indicate they want to join a future small group work session through our Verb dry erase boards.  For example, after reviewing all the research design proposals, I realized I needed to do some small group instruction on additional search techniques with Boolean operators and additional instruction on mining Academic Search Complete.
  • For those who might be shy or reluctant to place themselves in one of these help request parking lots, we’ve also been sure to work through our class rosters and are checking in with each student so that we are sure to meet with EVERY student and “check up” on their progress, successes, questions, and worries.

Yesterday, Sarah called students up by the class roster whereas I started with my list of student requested help.  Today we approached the scheduling of the 1:1 conferences by working through the class rosters and having students first check in with Sarah about some of their recent process work; students then moved to my table for to discuss the feedback they received from us on their research design proposals.   We each set up a help area with our mobile tables and our green Hon rolling chairs so that we had comfortable spaces to talk to students and where they could spread out their work and/or where we could show them specific resources or skills on our laptops if they needed some concrete visualization or examples.  Some conferences are brief while others are more extended, but typically, each meeting can last 3-10 minutes—it all depends on student need and how the conversation evolves in the conference.  We also keep notepads, large lined sticky notes, and/or Google Docs available at the conference table to jot down notes from each meeting while students bring along their folders of their process work, drafts of their design proposals, and the individualized design proposal feedback form.

student conf notes

In just these first few days we’ve been meeting with students, it’s very apparent when students feel confident (and skills/processes/ideas they’re self-assured about as well) and where students feel fuzzy, unsure, and/or anxious.   We’ve also observed that most of our students are not used to this level of accountability, and some seem a bit uncomfortable with it when you are asking them questions to nudge them to dig deeper or be more specific with details; we sense many are also not used to these types of conferences that puts the responsibility and decision making on them as students.   We are framing this conference/coaching sessions from a stance of discussions to help them think through their choices, to clarify their own thinking/choices/next steps, and to move forward with their projects since we don’t want them to see the messiness and muckiness of inquiry as punitive.   These sessions have also helped us identify those who might benefit from some of our upcoming small group mini-lessons but who may not have initially signed up for assistance.  Last but not least, I believe these conferences convey to our students that each person matters and that we care about them and their topics.

Reflections

While we cannot do their work for them, we can give students every opportunity to get personal assistance in a low-key setting —we want them to know they cannot fall through the cracks or simply fly under our radars.  While I’ve done this sort of work before, this is probably the biggest chunk of time I’ve had in a collaborative partnership for this level of assessment and 1:1 student conferencing.  This approach requires us to be agile and responsive as each day is different and every student need varies.  This kind of conferencing/coaching is time consuming and messy; while the prep for the small group work is pretty straightforward, the 1:1 help is definitely open-ended.  I have been inspired and am improving my own conferencing skills with students by watching Sarah (who is a master at this process) and by my friend and fellow school librarian Heather Hersey.  Her post about the importance of conferencing helped me to think about focusing on all aspects of their inquiry work and design proposals rather than just sources or their bibliographies; it also inspired my idea for using the mail merge form and database to capture feedback and use that as a starting point for the student conferences/coaching sessions.

Sarah and I have also been discussing how intense this kind of work is and how you have to be comfortable with making adjustments as needed to timelines and your plans in order to be responsive to the students.    The processes are messy, yet this “mucking around in ideas” is the grist for the growth and critical thinking that happens as both we and our students problem solve, question, and revise our ideas and stances.  Neither of us has any idea how someone would do this kind of process-driven, organic, fluid, and reflective work alone!  We love that our combined talents help the students as well as each other; we also are appreciative of having someone else each day who can help you see things you might have missed or to think about a particular situation or challenge with fresh eyes.   We are also excited we can model collaborative learning for our students—how often do they get to be in a learning environment where there are at least 2-3 adults who can help them and provide them the kind of specific and personalized attention they are receiving?  Most importantly, this type of collaboration is a catalyst for inquiry work and for integrating more formative kinds of assessments that benefit students and impact learning.

We expect the 1:1 and small group conferences, coaching, and small group instruction to continue the next 7 days of school leading up to our Thanksgiving break.  I hope to share more images, video, written/video reflections and feedback from both of us as well as our students in an upcoming post later this month.   I’m also thinking about how to better integrate the conferencing/coaching/conversation aspect into the inquiry approach (and at an earlier point in time) with research using Cris Tovani’s conceptualization of these conversations as data and formative assessment (see her text, So What Do They Really Know?  Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning).

Cris Tovani's Conversation Calendars

How are you approaching assessment with inquiry work?  How do you negotiate and embrace the challenges of time and fluidity with this approach to learning and research?  How do you scale this kind of learning experience when there are always challenges of time, space, and staffing?

Moving from Our Mindmaps to More Focused Topics with Question Lenses and Musical Peer Review

music activity-collage

In my last post that is part of this series, I shared how we used mindmapping after our second round of pre-searching to begin honing in our a more specific topic for our research.

After students shared out their mindmaps and big ideas, we asked them to look at their topic through different question “lenses” using an activity shared with me by my colleague Heather Hersey, a school librarian in Seattle.  Heather, who adapted her version of the handout from An Educator’s Guide to Information Literacy: What Every High School Senior Needs to Know (Ann Marlow Riedling, 2009), graciously shared her template with us, and we used it to help students look at their topic from multiple perspectives by “trying on” a question lens (see below).

Large Group Share of Mindmaps and Topic Triangles

This exercise was a stretch for the students as it forced them to look at their topic from an angle they might not have considered; we asked them to see if they could generate a question for at least 2-3 of the question lenses.  For some students, this was a helpful endeavor as it helped them in their thinking process about narrowing a focus even more for their topic; other students, though, were a little overwhelmed by the task and/or the cognitive dissonance that came along with the activity.   I love the activity because it is yet another way to encourage wonder, but in retrospect, I think it might have been more beneficial had we incorporated it sooner.   After conferring with Heather via email, I realized I missed that she utilizes it earlier in the pre-search process; I will consider following her lead on the timing in the future although I want to get student feedback on this aspect before making a decision for future efforts.

Once students had some time to muck around with this exercise, we asked them to then see if they could arrive at a more focused topic and compose a research topic statement or focused essential research question—we wanted to give them the option to write about their more focused in either format.  This statement/question writing was the springboard to an activity, “Musical Questions:  Broadening and Narrowing our EQs,” that we did on Friday (October 24) that we adapted from Marci Zane, Heather Hersey, Meg Donhauser, and Cathy Stutzman.   Sarah Rust came up with her own brilliant take on this activity:

1.  We arranged our tables in a conference style arrangement so that students could move about the “square” easily.

Musical Research Topic

2.  At the beginning of both classes, Sarah instructed the students to take out their document with the focused research topic statement or question they had composed earlier in the week.

Musical Research Topic

Musical Research Topic

3.  We explained that there would be four rounds of peer review; during each review students could provide four types of feedback:

  • a suggestion to broaden the topic statement/research question if needed
  • a suggestion to narrow the topic statement/research question
  • pose a question to nudge the peer’s thinking
  • share a constructive piece of feedback to help the peer with fine tuning that statement or question.

We asked that they put their names next to their feedback in case the owner of the statement/question needed to confer with them later about their statements or questions they had shared.

4.  We then explained that when there was no music, they would get up and begin walking around the table until music began playing (we let the students choose the music, and interestingly enough, they chose 80s and 90s tunes!  Their input made the activity more fun and gave them a sense of ownership).  Once the music started, they were to sit down in the closest chair and document and begin writing their feedback to the peer.   We gave them roughly 3-4 minutes to provide the feedback before stopping the music and starting our rotation again.

Musical Research Topic

Musical Research Topic

We honestly were not sure what to expect with the activity, so we were delighted by the positive response from our students.  We were also joined during our first class by assistant principal Christine Dailey who was there not only as an observer, but also as a participant—her jumping in and working side by side with the students was fantastic and of course, great modeling for our kids.  After the four rounds, we asked students to return back to the original seat and work and read over the feedback provided.  They then had an opportunity to pair-share with the person sitting next to them and to reflect on next steps or ideas that came from the four rounds of feedback from their peers.

Musical Research Topic

From what we observed, many students found this activity helpful in getting concrete suggestions for being more specific with the wording and in some cases, the scope, of their topic statements/research questions. We definitely would do this activity again as it gave students the chance to collaborate and work together  in a meaningful way as we continued to work through our research/inquiry processes! We would like to thank our students for their efforts, Christine Dailey for her time and feedback, and Heather, Meg, Marci, and Cathy for so generously sharing their ideas and experiences with us to create learning experiences that have helped us all as learners.

In addition, a big thanks to our New Jersey/Washington state friends for reminding us that the affective aspects of inquiry that our students are cycling through—confusion/frustration/doubt and clarity—are normal and that activities like these help mitigate some of the emotional lows or challenges our students are feeling, especially as the inquiry approach pushes them out of their comfort zones.  Even when you’ve experienced this process with students in the past, it is always reassuring to hear from others their approach to honoring that uncertainty and helping nudge students forward when they get stuck.  This same post has also given us some helpful guidance as we’ve wrestled with issues of grading and assessment of process-oriented, formative work.

In my next post, I’ll share how we are moving through the research design proposal process for the multigenre projects that students will be crafting.  The next couple of weeks will be interesting as students complete their proposals and move recursively between investigating, constructing, and expressing.   Until then, we’d love to hear your ideas and strategies for helping students narrow their topic statements and questions after pre-search–what have you tried that has been successful?  We’d love to hear your suggestions!

 

Sticky Notes as Formative Assessment for Information Literacy Instruction: Coding Student Responses

Yesterday I blogged about our pre-searching activities and the use of sticky notes for some gentle formative assessment.  Today I want to share how I went about coding the student responses not only to get a sense of students’ thinking during the two days of pre-searching, but to also use the data as a baseline of sorts in hopefully looking a broad collection of their work as we try to track their trajectory of growth and progress through this extended research unit.

Coding Information Sources

I began by removing the sticky notes for each period from the whiteboards and affixing them to large post-it notes and labeling each grouping by period and response type.  The next challenge was to think of categories for coding the student responses.  The “information sources used” was the easiest starting point, so I began there.

Coding "Information Sources Used" Sticky Notes from Days 1 and 2 of PreSearch, 3rd Period #rustyq

I listed all the information sources from the LibGuide for the project and then tallied responses.  I wound up adding Google as another category since some students indicated they had used this search engine.  Here are the results by period:

2nd period Rust Sources Used Sticky Note Data PreSearch October 2014

 

3rd  period Rust Sources Used Sticky Note Data PreSearch October 2014

In both classes, it appears Gale Opposing Viewpoints was a starting point for the majority of students; Gale Science in Context was next in popularity.  2nd period seemed to like SweetSearch and self-selected information sources while 3rd period leaned more heavily toward Academic Search Complete.

When we look at the updated topics roster (while taking into account the intiial list of topics they had generated), the numbers are not too surprising.  I know that many of them will benefit from some guidance into specific databases and search tools that will align with their topic choices as we move deeper into the project, but I’m not terribly surprised by what I see from the first two days of the risk free pre-search time to just hone down an interest area for one broad topic.  This data, though, does suggest to me that there may be sources unfamiliar to students or they have used minimally in the past (as do the results from the information literacy skills needs survey we did via index cards with Ms. Rust a few weeks ago).

Questions

My categories for coding the questions students generated included:

  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • How or Why?
  • Topic Clarification
  • Question about the research or the assignment
  • Other (other types of questions i.e. Is Finland’s educational system superior to the United States?)
  • None

2nd period posed 15 “how/why” questions and 11 questions that fell under “other”; there were four “who” questions and 6 “what” questions; three students did not note any questions.  3rd period generated questions that primarily fell under “what” (4), “how/why” (4), research/assignment questions (6), or “other” (6); five students did not generate any questions.  Clearly, there is a stark contrast between the two classes in the types of questions they generated.  This data may indicate that 3rd period may need more guided help in engaging more deeply with their articles OR strategies for generating questions.

Discoveries and Insights

For this group of sticky note responses, I created these coding categories:

  • Fact or concrete detail
  • Concept/Conceptual
  • Question
  • Reflection
  • Commentary/Opinion/Reaction

Once I began taking a pass through the student responses, I realized I need four additional categories:

  • Topic Ideas
  • Sources
  • None
  • Other

Second period students primarily recorded facts or concrete details for their notes; however, several used this space to think through additional topic ideas; the pattern was nearly identical in 3rd period.  I was not surprised by these findings since students spent only two days doing light pre-search and I knew in advance that getting enough information to eliminate some topic areas of interest would be where many would expend their time and energy.

Final Thoughts

The pre-search activity and days were designed to help students rule out some topics and have time to explore those of interest and our sticky note method of formative assessment was one we felt would give us feedback without imposing a structure that would be time-consuming for students since we really wanted them to channel their energies into reading and learning more about their topic lists.  While some of the data I coded was not surprising, I was really struck by the differences in the types of questions they generated.  Right now I don’t know if this means one class might need more help in generating questions from informational texts or if perhaps they were approaching the reading and activity in a different way that didn’t lend itself to composing lots of questions at that early juncture in time.

If you are incorporating pre-search as part of the connecting cycle of inquiry, what kinds of formative assessments do you use?  If you code student responses, how do you approach that process, and how do you use that data to inform your instructional design?   I find this kind of work interesting—I am looking forward to seeing if any of these gray areas or perceived gaps come to light as we move further into our research unit this month.

Beginning Our Research and Inquiry Experiences with Pre-Searching

Day 1 PreSearch:  Exploring and Sharing Our Questions, Discoveries, and Information Sources

We formally began our first steps into our fall research experience with Ms. Rust’s 12 British Literature/Composition Honors students by giving them  a few days to pre-search their initial lists of topics of interests.    We introduced the research guide and took a few minutes to discuss the purpose of pre-searching and to encourage them to exhaust as many of the databases and search engines in the guide; we also told students they could explore information sources they knew would be meaningful (example: Sports Illustrated website for the essay on LeBron James returning to Cleveland).  We stressed that this was a risk-free period of time to just explore and learn more about the topics of interest in an informal way that did not involve notes or citations.    As students came in, they picked up three different colors of sticky notes; we instructed students to label the blue sticky note as the placeholder for questions that might arise from their readings; the bright yellow sticky note as the space for making notes of discoveries, insights, or new information; and the pink sticky notes as a place to track the information sources they were sampling and exploring.

As expected, there was a range of responses from those who fully immersed themselves in the opportunity and thrived to those who were stuck even thinking of a topic or not feeling enthusiastic about the initial list they had generated.   Sarah Rust (teacher), Jennifer Lund (librarian), and I essentially acted as “coaches” who encouraged and provided feedback to students wherever they fell on the the spectrum; we also tried to help nudge those who were stuck in neutral by doing 1:1 conferencing and sharing strategies to help them either discover a topic that mattered to them or to unpack some areas of interest to connect to a concrete topic.  After the first day, Sarah reflected on what we observed:

I was surprised at how hesitant some students are with all of the freedom of inquiry. I think they are so used to the previous confines of research that they’re timid/baffled/weirded-out that we’re giving them the onus of topic selection and they have time to actually think, refine, change, explore topics. Oh the freedom!!!

At the end of the first day, we asked students to share their sticky notes on our Verb whiteboards and easel that served as a “parking lot” for their work.

sarah rust pre-searching and sticky notes

We used these sticky notes as a gentle formative assessment to see where students were at the end of both days of pre-search and as a medium for helping students engage in metacognition without imposing too formal of a structure on them at this early stage of connecting in Stripling’s Model of Inquiry.  We are very pleased with this method of collecting feedback and getting kids to be reflective without over-structuring the activity and interfering with the exploration focus.

At the end of the second day, we asked students to complete this survey for homework.  This assignment was designed to help us see where they were with broad topic selection and to refine our initial groupings for inquiry-research circles that we’ll be utilizing for collaborative activities we have planned for this research unit.

How are you approaching pre-searching in units of inquiry and research with your students?  What does it look like in your learning community, and what strategies have you tried that have been successful?

Related Posts:

Inquiring with Students:  What Do or Can “Good” Research Projects Look Like?, September 29, 2014

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.

rust what is good research notecard surveys

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.