Earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of listening to students and letting that inform our instructional design, learning activities, and mediums for assessment.  With that in mind, Susan Lester and I decided to utilize face to face conversation instead of a class blog or other virtual medium for students to share their research topics, challenges, successes, and questions up to this point in our Spring 2012 inquiry into war and veterans’ issues.  Students completed their research design proposals prior to our spring break on March 30 and received written and verbal feedback immediately after spring break; since then, they have been working on organizing their PLE dashboard and going further into their research after our initial pre-search period that helped them get to the point of submitting their research design proposal.

Our method was fairly simple:  we met in Susan’s room this past Friday, April 20 (the library was packed) and gave students about 5 minutes to reflect individually or with their research partners (some students are researching solo; others are working in small groups) on the following questions:

1. Share your topic and three big research questions with the group.

2. What are the best information sources you have found so far? Why? Share your top 3 at this point.

3. What are some of your research challenges? How have you dealt with them or what do you need help with?

4. What is your progress/status on locating and emailing an expert for an interview?

5. Which information dashboard are you using (Symbaloo or Netvibes)? How is that working for you? What have you added to it so far?

6. What questions or muddy points do you have for Ms. Lester or Ms. Hamilton?

We then gave every student an opportunity to share and discuss his/her responses to those six questions; if students worked in groups, they worked out among themselves who would discuss each question although most groups answered these collaboratively for each question.   Another benefit to the face to face sharing was that both students and teachers could ask each other for clarification when we didn’t fully understand what someone else had shared.  While the process was no-tech and seemingly simple, the results were powerful for students and for us as teachers.  Every person had an opportunity to have his/her voice heard–this communal sharing of ideas allowed us to all interact, pose questions, and provide support for each other in the moment of the discussion.   Because our students had previously shared they prefer face to face communication, we wanted to honor that, and quite honestly, I think this way of sharing was far richer for them than posting on a class blog.  While I’d love to eventually nudge them to sharing with a more global audience, our face to face sharing was a chance for them to hear about the work of their peers and to share within our immediate learning community.

For Susan and I, this research roundtable was a formative assessment that has given us these insights:

  • We’re seeing patterns of common issues and challenges students were facing—right now, getting the right combination of search terms is a challenge for some of our researchers.  Consequently, I now have a schedule to provide some 1:1 “triage” to those students this week.  Now I can provide meaningful intervention for those who need it to get them “unstuck” in the inquiry process.
  • We’re also seeing patterns of what students feel are the most helpful sources for different topics as well as sources that students might not be utilizing or need help navigating.   Students cited Gale Opposing Viewpoints, Academic Search Complete, SIRS Issues Researcher as their favorite databases; others shared they found SweetSearch and Google News to be valuable search portals for current news articles and informative and credible websites.
  • We learned that students are now going back and rereading articles more closely when they feel they are having difficulty understanding the article or not initially finding the information they’re seeking in the first pass of the article.  We were heartened that they are demonstrating more resilience and persistence in this area and taking time to reread their resources more deeply rather than skimming, scanning, and abandoning the article.
  • As expected, some students find Netvibes to be a more useful information dashboard while others prefer the streamlined feel of Symbaloo; this information was not surprising, but I think it was good for the kids to see that everyone has reasons for their choices, and that there is no “wrong” or “right” medium for organizing your PLE.  Interestingly, many students stated they liked working off their EasyBib lists and were utilizing it heavily as a “go to” tool on their information dashboard.  For the Netvibes users, most felt that once they got past the initial learning curve, they were especially happy with that choice; a couple of students felt extremely passionate about it, and one declared it to be “awesome“!

For me, the experience reaffirmed how much I love working closely with a specific class for an extended period of time–I love getting to know the students better as learners and as individuals; I also relish having chunks of uninterrupted time to really listen closely and have these conversations for learning.  Unfortunately, I’m spread too thin this year to do this kind of activity as much as I’d like.  I’m also grateful to work with teachers like Susan Lester who understand that inquiry takes time and who keep learning at the center of what we do by being open and receptive to these kinds of learning experiences.

Formative assessments like these go a long way in helping us improve our instructional design and to make adjustments in response to the needs of students.  I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating that we see a higher quality of learning products and more positive movement on the learning continuum when we engage in sound, thoughtful instructional design and incorporate multiple formative assessments into the learning process.   Research experiences that lack these essential elements and don’t provide a healthy measure of ownership and choice pretty much guarantee poor work and/or rampant plagiarism.  This “research reflections roundtable” is one that can be adapted for any age group and can be a valuable learning experience for both students and teachers.  Best of all, it’s free, immediate, and easy to implement–all you need is time, space, an open mind, and an attentive ear!