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.

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

  1. Thank you for this thought provoking post. I work in a public library, and many of your questions pertain to our patrons. It is important for staff to look at whatever research they are helping with from the patron’s point of view, and to explain information seeking as a process that can be used across topics, for education and entertainment.

    1. Hi Amy! It’s so nice to connect with you! I think that raising our awareness of perceptions about research can help us to open up more thinking and discussions about the importance of context of information literacy and what research looks like in different settings/purposes. I love it when kids help me question what I think I know!

  2. I was glad to see someone mentioning databases and someone else warning against limiting sources. At least a couple of the students recognize that search engines can’t supply all of the information necessary for good research. Proprietary databases provide a wealth of additional sources. And sometimes, it’s even still necessary to touch print.

    1. We’re hoping to hit a good balance between the traditional authoritative sources and opening up non-traditional sources under a larger conversation about evaluating information in context of our information seeking tasks. We’re excited to have this opportunity to help our kids think more critically about information and metrics for evaluating its credibility and relevance.

  3. I’m interested in the metacognitive development that must
    take place for students to grow from individuals in passive roles
    who go through the motions in “research projects” assigned to them
    to active and engaged initiators of questions and approaches that
    yield more intensive (and ultimately authentic) inquiry. This
    launch to the grade 12 project seems like a great way to encourage
    students to step outside the process first and reflect on where
    they are in this development. I see this as such a key role for
    teacher librarians, and I hope to move into this type collaborative
    coaching and shift away from being the person who is relied upon to
    help students learn how to use NoodleBib. I realize and embrace the
    value in teaching the tools that aid the process, but until we
    deeply analyze how and why and where we are within it, the
    ancillary work feels a bit empty and hollow. Thank you again, Buffy
    and Co., for sharing your experiences for in-depth and meaningful
    inquiry.

    1. Robin, you’ve beautifully articulated the tensions, struggles, hopes, and desires I think many of us feel in our roles, especially those of us who want to dwell more in this instructional side of our job. It’s been awhile since I’ve had an opportunity to do this kind of work, but I’m thankful for my partners—Jennifer, Sarah, and Sarah’s students–who have come together for this experience. Thank you for the kind words of support and encouragement, and know you are not alone!

  4. I really like the idea of asking these questions! I do
    library instruction sessions mainly with college freshman and have
    been looking for good lead-in questions for my sessions.
    Thanks!

  5. I love the idea of having students brainstorm what makes a project successful before they start their research, and think that returning to the student-created list after the research as a form a assessment could be useful. If a rubric is being used, I also like the idea of adding these students’ voices to the guidelines!

  6. Hi Buffy, did you review these with your students at all? I’m trying to design a lesson like this and am wondering about a follow-up discussion with my class. They’ve set goals and done a self-assessment of their skills and I’m trying to find a way to collate all of this data to help them understand how they learn.

    1. We’re having that conversation now as they begin crafting their multigenre projects and to help us design the assessments for their work! They are also choosing some of their own learning targets and will share how their products and processes demonstrate growth and/or mastery of those skills. I hope to be writing more about all of that in the next couple of weeks. I would love to hear more about your lesson and what you decide to do with the collation of the data!

      1. Thanks for responding so quickly! I love the idea of creating their own learning targets. Each student has identified their strengths and challenges and identified their own goals for this class, but I really like the idea of having them design goals that are closely tied to those strengths and challenges. AND weaving the “what makes a good research project” concepts into it….I will definitely report back.

      2. You are more than welcome! We’re using content standards and some of the AASL Standards for 21st Century Learners as “guideposts” or a starting point to help them articulate some specific skills or processes that relate to broader areas of improvement they identified on notecards about a month or so ago. I am lucky to be working with Sarah Rust as she is so open to these possibilities and focused on student learning. I’ll keep you updated, and I’m excited to hear how this goes with you. Thank you for thinking this through with me!

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