When academic students proceed into the senior grades, it’s often assumed that they already know how to do research. After all, they have completed their subjects at an academic level, they have been learning about how to research since grade one or two, and in not too long, they will be studying at the university level. Research at the senior level, however, still needs to be taught because these students will be operating at an even higher level in their post-secondary education, and the work will be completed with complete independence. It should be assumed that they are very competent learners, but it should not be assumed that they are ready to be fully independent learners; thus, it’s not an acceptable practice to assign projects without teaching them effective research skills.
Think ahead to university and ask yourself, “What will these students need to be able to do on their own when assigned an independent research project in university?” The question of what you should teach lies in that answer. As I
have already addressed this question in regards to my senior English students, I will outline here a systematic approach for teaching research to Senior level students.
What do they need to be able to do on their own?
- Locate the best sources.
- Create an accurate bibliography.
- Choose the most relevant information.
- Take effective, accurate notes without plagiarizing.
- Organize the information in a logical manner.
- Write the information effectively blending the cited information.
- Present the final product according to stylistic guidelines.
Here’s an outline of the first topic: Locate the Best Sources.
Start with Google or Other Such Search Engines. The most common, consistent inclination of students in general is to Google the topic, and Googling the topic is actually an acceptable starting point; however, it’s not likely to be the best place to get their information. Instead of telling students that Google is not a great way to research, tell them Google is an excellent starting point for finding overview information that you can rely upon to be mostly correct. I would even encourage them to start with Wikipedia and other such sources, however, realizing that these sources do sometimes contain factual errors since anyone who joins the group (the largest online wiki in the world) can change the information. For the most part, the information is accurate, but errors can be made or someone could intentionally change it.
Other search engines like Yahoo, Bing and Ask will produce different results than Google. You may want to explain that web-searching is based on algorithms. Each search engine has it’s own developed algorithm to determine the ranking of the search results. In Google the ranking system is based on site popularity and other criteria. Google crawls through every site reading it’s metadata, so if a person is aware of metadata and how Google’s algorithm works, they can manipulate the metadata of a website to be more ‘Google friendly’ so that the site ranks higher when a topic is searched. The ‘best’ sites are not what are displayed first—it’s the sites that score best on a computer-derived algorithm. It isn’t even a person deciding if the content is any good!
Books are also an excellent starting point. If you have books in your school library on the research subjects, they are the best place to start. A great deal of effort was exerted to create that book in a polished, professional form that doesn’t contain factual errors. Errors in published books do happen on occasion, but the frequency of errors is significantly less than in other forms that are published quickly. Books are organized into chapter sections, and those chapter sections show the student an overview and organization of the topic. I would direct students towards books if they are available. Have your librarian order particular books that would be appropriate for your students to complete their research. Stock your library with the books you need!
Do not forget about your city library or a local university library if you are lucky enough to have one. It would even be a worthwhile field trip to visit a university library while involved in a research project. Your city library likely allows you to search their collection online and even make a book reservation with a library card. I have often found it to be a helpful resource to my students.
Magazines are the next best print publication. Even though magazines are published periodically and in a form that’s eventually discarded, they employ fact-checkers to check every statement of fact in an article. They have time before a publication goes to print, so they carefully check every detail to ensure it’s correct.
Newspapers are the weakest print publication. If you are interested in current events or the unfolding of an event as it occurred, day by day, then newspapers can be useful; however, it must be understood that because they publish information so quickly, errors are made more frequently that you would maybe expect. Students should realize this fact as they use newspapers especially for information on world events. If you are using an expose article on a more in-depth topic, the information will be more factually sound since a great deal more preparation occurred for that special feature article. As well, if you are reading an editorial, it’s the opinion of one person and not an objective presentation of the facts.
Online databases are a marvel of the modern world. Anyone who didn’t go to university in the digital age is dumbfounded when they experience the new way of researching that doesn’t involve spending hours searching through volumes that list potential resources by topic. Doing one key word search could involve several volumes, a great deal of page flipping, and not many resources when you are done. Just because a journal article exists somewhere in the world, doesn’t mean the university library has it!
Essentially, searching a database is much like a physical library search because you are using key words to locate the right resources. The absolutely most fantastic part of using online databases—all the resources are considered excellent, academic sources, unlike on the Internet where there is a great deal of ‘crap’ to sift!
If you have access to databases for research, absolutely use them! Our school library subscribes to EBSCO, an online database service. They offer numerous subscription packages, so you can decide which databases would be useful to your school (and what you can afford).
I made an excellent discovery recently in my own city. Our city library, and most other city libraries, offer access to databases online to library card holders. In particular, they subscribe to a database service that is very comprehensive
called Gale CenGage Learning that is offered by Thomson Gale. Numerous libraries subscribe to this service, so check your local library’s website to see what online services they offer and encourage students to bring their library card to class on research days or to use it at home. It’s especially helpful if you teach an AP class because there are specifically Advanced Placement databases within this database service.
Special search engines for academic research. There are two search engines that I have encouraged students to try while researching. The first, Sweet Search, is a search engine for students where all the resources in the search list have been reviewed by research experts and deemed worthy as academic sources of information. The second, Google Scholar, is a more specific Google search engine that is still using an algorithm but produces academic papers and articles. I have not found it as useful as SweetSearch for high school students because the reading level of most of the results is quite challenging. Some students have found it useful.
Finally, last and least, if you don’t have enough sources already, complete a general Internet search. The main problem with the general Internet search, besides the use of an algorithm that doesn’t determine if the information is ‘best’, is the frequency of frivolous crap. It seems that everyone and their dog are blogging these days about every topic under the sun. Students are creating assignments online as the final product for the research that they have done as well, so there’s a great deal of self-filtering that needs to be done as you sift through the results. I choose to avoid this experience for the most part since there are so many better sources available; however, it’s valuable for students to practice assessing websites using a set of criteria.
Criteria for Judgment:
Is there a specific author? Does that author have credentials?
Who is the owner of the site—the producer of the content? Does that owner have anything to gain from you using the site?
Is the information consistent with book sources?
Is there a prejudice or bias that is readily apparent?
advocacy or hate group
Does the site have a professional, reputable appearance? (Note: Many websites are software now and not self-created, so they generally appear more professional; thus, this cannot be the only criteria for judgment.)
no flashy ads or pop ups
no malicious links
Those are the criteria that I have been using with my students of every high school grade and level, and they have been a good measuring stick for whether the information can be trusted or not.
If you have any ideas which you feel adds to the topic of locating the best sources, please respond below.
Creating an accurate bibliography will be dealt with in the next article with a focus on keeping a running bibliography.