Saturday, March 6, 2010

Frustration with Research Projects

Are you conducting a research project in your class? Do you find yourself getting more and more frustrated with student research abilities and the end product? This is not surprising. Many content area teachers get frustrated when doing a research project in class. Here are a few reasons why students may be having trouble:

1. The students have not been taught (or have forgotten) how to take notes from different kinds of sources.
2. The students have not been taught (or have forgotten) how to properly cite a source.
3. The students only have experience finding direct answers to direct questions.
4. The students only know how to regurgitate information located in the text.

So what you find yourself with is a group of students who, for the most part, don't write down citation information from their sources, copy word for word the information read in the source, answer research questions only if they require location of facts from a source, and are unable to develop their own unique synthesis of the information learned about the topic.

What can you do to help your students navigate through this process and ease some of your frustration?

1. Don't assume students know how to research - even if you are teaching secondary students.

If you are working with elementary or middle school students, take the time to walk through the entire process from start to finish. Model each stage of the research project and practice as a class before asking students to do their own. Take it one step at a time and create specific due dates for each stage of the project.

If you are working with high school students make sure to go over your expectations in detail. Provide a checklist showing each stage and the requirements for each. You still want to have specific due dates for each stage of the process to keep track of student progress.

Providing students with specific guidelines and walking them through the process is not cheating - it's teaching. When students only complete one or two research projects in a year they do not get sufficient practice to build good habits and retain knowledge of the process from year to year. As with everything, when you don't practice frequently you forget.

2. Teach or remind students how to take notes before beginning the research project. Practice as a class how to take notes using a book, periodical, and website at the very minimum. This is a good time to teach or review citation rules as well. Basic note-taking skills include identifying the main idea of the paragraph, page, or passage and writing down supporting details under the main idea. I always stipulate to students that they may only write down three words maximum for each line of notes taken. This forces them to clearly identify the main idea and supporting details from the reading. It also reduces the amount of plagiarism that occurs from copying information word for word during the note-taking stage.

Also, it is a good idea to review how to locate the main idea (both stated and inferred) and supporting details in class - especially if you don't normally teach this in your subject area classes. Don't assume the English/Reading teacher has recently taught or reviewed this skill or even that students remember the lessons.

3. Practice answering questions from print sources where the answer is not expressly stated. In other words, practice inferring answers from text. Students have plenty of practice answering Knowledge and Comprehension level questions where the answer can be easily located within the text. However, they do not have a lot of practice answering questions where they must infer the answer or reason it out from the reading because it is not specifically addressed.

For example, you may ask students to discuss mankind's affect on nature in a particular region. The source you read may describe depleted resources and changes in the ecosystem without specifically stating that this is a result of human interference in nature. After reading the text, "think aloud" with students to model how you would think through the meaning and inferences within this passage. Do this kind of activity as frequently as possible with textbook readings throughout the school year. These modeling practices teach students how to actively think about their reading and identify information that is not explicitly stated but rather implied.

4. Practice making opinion statements about a topic and providing support from a source. This is another activity that can be practiced throughout the school year and not just during a research project. When students read a passage or section in the content area textbook, ask them to form an opinion. Then have students support that opinion from the text. You should first model this to the whole class then have students work in groups to practice, then in pairs, and finally each student should be able to make his or her own opinion statement from a single or even multiple sources.

This is also an activity that should be taught and practiced in ALL grade levels. Kindergarten students are just as capable of forming an opinion and supporting it as a high school senior. Their opinions and support may be less complex, but you are beginning to build the dendrites in the brain for this important skill.

Students are less likely to regurgitate facts in a research project when they have been taught and have frequently practiced how to make opinion statements. The most important aspect of this skill is that students are able to locate support for their opinion from the text. Frequent practice will help students hone this skill and will provide more entertaining and enlightening reports for you.

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