The Research Connection

Think back: when did you learn how to do research?

You know, that process of going to the library sometime in your elementary or secondary or college education to learn about some topic so you could write a paper about it. I remember my first research paper ever, in Miss M’s third-grade classroom. She listed all the available topics on one of those clear sheets she could display with the overhead projector, then went around the room allowing us the chance to choose.

Seriously, who wouldn’t want to study someone who dressed like that and had red hair? I wanted red hair and a dress like that.

I reallyreallyreallyreally wanted Elizabeth the First, but either my last name was too late in the alphabet or I wasn’t listening well that day (probably both), so I was out of luck. Fortunately, there was also an Elizabeth II, so my luck hadn’t entirely run out, even if this one didn’t have the neat-looking dresses.

Ironically, the next research process I remember well, the one where I think maybe I started to get the hang of “research,” finally took me back to Elizabeth I, or more accurately to her older half-sister. (It’s almost shocking I didn’t become an early modern British historian, right?)

I’ve spent countless more hours, days, and weeks doing research since then. In grad school, I wrote a lot about my research and note-taking process, but it’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve begun thinking about an even larger question: how do you teach someone to do research?

In graduate school, it’s pretty easy to spend a lot of time thinking about your own research. This is, after all, the ticket. It’s your raison d’être, and figuring out a way to do learn as much as you possibly can and uncover all the right materials to craft your argument – well, there’s an art to that.

Okay, it turned out that the second Elizabeth was pretty interesting too, and that was 3 decades before Netflix dropped The Crown for all of us to enjoy.

I won’t rehash all the ways I used Zotero and digital photos to keep track of my sources. (You can always go back and look at a post I wrote on Hacking the Dissertation Process, if you’re so inclined.)

These days, it’s less about my doing research and more about figuring out how to teach high school students how to research.

A few years ago, my department determined that research was, naturally, one of our priorities. This generally means that we have a lot of research projects throughout grades 9-11. When I arrived in the 2011-12 school year, we had a project in grade 10 that focused on helping students investigate current global issues. It was a good project in some ways, but it was hard to fit it in with our broader study of 20th century world history, and it didn’t always fit well. Two years ago, we shifted student requirements to add a third trimester of history to the end of students’ sophomore year, with the explicit goal of using that as a place for the global issues project and some more concentrated work on research skills.

This is where I came in. As the lone PhD in our department, our chair thought I would be a good team lead for developing the course, since i had more research experience. We teach in teams on a regular basis, and our course preparation is very collaborative. Our first go at Contemporary Global Issues happened last year (2015-2016 school year). This week, we’ll wrap up Round 2, and as it comes to a close, it’s interesting to think about what we’ve learned, where we’ve accomplished (and failed), and consider what we do next.

I used these two years of experience as the basis for my presentation earlier this month at UC-Berkeley’s Teaching History in the 21st Century conference (a phenomenal event – you should go in 2019!) and I’ll also be doing a similar session at my school’s Summit for Transformative Learning conference in two weeks (also a phenomenal event, geared for teachers in all fields JK-12). (It’s been helpful to go out and talk about this course and our experiences, because this is where I’ve come to think of things that hadn’t yet crossed my mind and found suggestions from others on alternate approaches.)

I could write a number of posts on this, but for today, I’d like to offer a few things I’ve learned in this process of teaching research skills to students:

  1. Partnering with a great librarian is essential. I have a phenomenal set of librarians at my school, and their collaboration on research projects is always key to success. As historians, we like to think we know how to research and we do – after all, we survived the trenches and the archives, right? But good librarians are the most amazing thought partners and the people who really know their way around a stack of books.
  2. Repetition is key to success, but students will resist this. It’s become clear to me in the past few years that we have to repeatedly teach and work with skills like how to cite sources and how to evaluate sources. The former is easy to forget if you’re not citing for a research project on a regular basis. In either case, high schoolers just need repeated chances to work on such skills until it becomes second nature. I think this is partially developmental, but also partially a reflection of the highly chaotic nature of their lives (so many classes, sports, and so little time).
  3. Identify the key research skills you want students to learn. Do you want them to work on their note-taking? Source evaluation and selection? Incorporating evidence into a paper and analyzing it appropriately? Not all projects need every single element; it’s possible to work 1 or 2 smaller skills into a smaller project, for example (ie: notecards, which we do on NoodleTools). Identifying the specific, concrete skills you expect of your students will also help them make progress on the project.
  4. Interact with your students regularly through one-on-one consultations, and provide formative feedback at various project stages. You know how easy it is to go down the rabbit hole: frequent check-ins, whether verbal or by looking at their research “products” (lit review, notecards, annotated bibliography, rough drafts, other benchmarks) are very important to understanding your students’ thought processes and how they are moving forward (or not).
  5. Put down the Remote Control. When you’re really good at doing research yourself, it’s easy to try to take the reins and help students know just what to Google or just where to go. But remember, even hitting dead ends can help you gain important understandings.

Do you teach research methods to students at any level? I’d love to hear from you about the steps you take and what you’ve learned or tried.

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