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.

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.

Video Interview: The Importance of Choice for Igniting Student Passion and Learning Through Research Projects

Earlier this week, I ran a short feature on our art gallery inspired by student research.  In the video below, Teagan takes a few minutes to discuss her work and the importance of choice in igniting student passion in research/inquiry projects.

Student Research Inspired Art Gallery

Research Inspired Art

This fall, The Unquiet Library has hosted a unique art installation inspired by student research this past spring.  Some of you may remember Teagan from this past winter and her unique approach to creating mindmaps.  Teagan and her partner Kristiena (whom you may remember as one of my co-authors from this fall for a Knowledge Quest article) created a digital multigenre research composition on veterans and PTSD.  Both Teagan and Kristiena were part of a group of students who generously shared their insights and reflections on being immersed in a participatory culture of learning.   In their words, they set out to explore “…PTSD, the effects it has on veterans, and how veterans can receive help from this mental illness. It is very important to understand the severity of this undermined illness because without knowing about the organizations that help these veterans, the specific treatments these organizations use, and what we can do as a community to help, we are letting our country’s veterans down.”  Their inquiry was inspired by their readings of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac, and Ghosts of War by Ryan Smithson.

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Teagan, who is a gifted photographer, decided to create her own original images to depict some of the key ideas and findings from their research and integrate them into the multigenre digital text.  I was so struck by the artistry of her work that this fall, I asked her if she would consider letting the library create prints of her work and have a research inspired art gallery.  She graciously gave me permission and used excerpts of her research to create informational placards for each print.  After we mounted the prints and placards on art easels, we arranged Teagan’s artwork in the sequence she outlined for us so that viewers could follow the narrative of her artistic creations.  Students and teachers alike have been impressed not only with her moving and striking photography, but they have also been pleasantly surprised to learn that it was sparked by the information she discovered in her research and that the gallery is an alternative representation of those findings.  Not only did Teagan photograph and process the photographs, but she and her father both served as models for the prints.

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The research inspired art gallery has not only helped others learn about PTSD and its impact on veterans, but it has also nudged people to see research as something more than an assignment and that it is a mode of learning that can far beyond a class assignment.  I am hopeful that future galleries featuring inquiry inspired creative works will be commonplace and can incorporate additional participatory mediums for interacting with the gallery with a feature like panels coated in IdeaPaint where people can respond to the art and ideas. On behalf of the library and our learning community, I would like to thank Teagan for generously sharing her talent and wisdom with us.

Easing Their Citation Pain: Putting the Focus on Critical Thinking in Research with EasyBib

Original photography by Buffy Hamilton

One of the challenges of teaching research and information literacy to high school students is helping them conceptualize and apply the principles of citation and ethical use of information.   Because so many students come to us with a limited understanding of accessing, using, and evaluating different kinds of information sources, particularly databases, as well as citation skills, I’ve been contemplating for the last year how to invest less time in the mechanics of creating citations and more time on the critical thinking in their inquiry/research processes.

My school district has provided all of our schools a NoodleTools subscription for many years, and it has been a well-appreciated product by our teachers.  However, no matter how much one on one help we provided (and my teachers can attest to what a huge commitment of time and energy the 1:1 help effort has been the last six years), how many step by step handouts we created, or how many video tutorials we created, students in all grade levels struggled to master the steps to citing different sources, particularly the databases.  In spite of our best efforts, citation was painful for students as they struggled to discern the variety of choices the citation wizard offered since they were still building context and knowledge about the variety of information sources available within specific databases.

In January, I made the decision to purchase a school subscription to EasyBib in order to provide our students and teachers an additional choice for citation and e-notecard management.   Several factors influenced this decision:

  • After seeing students continue to struggle with citation and NoodleTools during first semester, I knew we had to find alternate citation solutions for this academic year.
  • I felt I could not continue to indulge the patience of students and teachers in devoting inordinate amounts of time to the actual creation of citations.
  • The new version of NoodleTools with the enchancments we wanted (that will be similar to those in EasyBib) would not be available for this current semester.
  • My colleague Roxanne retired and the district made the decision to hire a long term substitute in her place for the semester; because the long term substitute came with no teaching or library experience and had very limited knowledge of NoodleTools, I knew that continuing to teach citation through NoodleTools would be even more challenging.
  • The school subscription was budget friendly.
  • The most excellent customer service and tech support I’ve received from Kerry Kitka.
  • EasyBib has demonstrated continuous development in the design of their product as well as regular updates/upgrades to their suite of features.

The implementation of EasyBib as an alternate tool for citation has been easy and incredibly well-received by both students and teachers.  The learning curve has been gentle for students in all grade levels, and our students in grades 10-12 who had previously used NoodleTools have been appreciative of the features in EasyBib that make citation a much less cumbersome process—I’ve received numerous rounds of applause when I have demonstrated the database upload feature as well as the SweetSearch integration feature with EasyBib.   Our students and teachers have especially loved the ability to upload the publication data files (.ris and .txt) from databases like EBSCOhost and GALE-Cengage.

Original photograph by Buffy Hamilton

Students have commented that the interface seems clean and easy to follow.   Our ninth grade students especially  love the features of the electronic notes, including the ease of grouping and color coding e-notes.  Several students have expressed surprise and delight with EasyBib’s features and how quickly they’ve learned to use the tools; others have commented they feel as though they can now focus on analyzing their research and finding additional information to broaden their understanding instead of getting bogged down in the mechanics of citation.  Students also love the EasyBib mobile app for scanning books as well as the autocite a book feature.  So far, EasyBib has appealed to a diverse range of learners across a variety of content/subject areas in our instruction the last two months.

My teachers and I also like that when students use the autocite feature websites, their evaluation of the source as being credible, somewhat credible, or not credible aligns with our instruction of the CRAAP information evaluation guidelines that we ask students to apply to ALL information sources.  English teacher Deborah Frost appreciates how expedient EasyBib is making the citation process so that her students can spend more time on annotating their articles and thinking critically during pre-search.  Teacher Abigail Jackson loves the ability for students to easily import database publication files to generate citations while Drew Lawson loved the autocite a book feature.

Although EasyBib does not currently have all the sharing features offered by NoodleTools (which our students and teachers do love), the clean interface and ease of use has made it very popular with our students and faculty in a short time.  I also appreciate their ready made tutorial videos and handouts as well.

I am thrilled that I’m in a position to offer our students a choice of citation tools.  My hope is that by offering students a choice, students can find the citation manager that works best for their needs.  It has truly been energizing to see how EasyBib has created a more positive energy for our collaborative research projects and freed more time in our instructional units to focus on search, evaluation, and critical thinking.   Students still have to make basic distinctions about different kinds of publication sources and publication information in EasyBib, but EasyBib truly scaffolds that decision making process; I liken it to having a “spotter” when one is learning a new skill in gymnastics—EasyBib allows students to master the skills without stumbling or getting overly frustrated.    I’m hopeful that by minimizing the “pain” of citation through EasyBib, students will not approach research with a sense of “dread” at the prospect of getting lost in the morass of citation mechanics.  My goal is to provide students a sound, positive foundation in a diverse range of traditional and emerging research skills, critical thinking experiences, and rich inquiry driven research/learning opportunities;  EasyBib is helping my library program to work toward that goal more effectively and to meet the students at their point of need.

I have also created an EasyBib 101 LibGuide that includes material from EasyBib as well as my own original tutorial videos that address some of the issues our students may encounter in our network with Internet Explorer (the only browser students are allowed to use at this time); please feel free to use any of the materials I’ve uploaded to this guide.