Before the advent of the internet, the hardest part of doing research was finding relevant resources. Students were lucky to find more than a handful of books and articles on their assigned topic, and the search for information was confined to the texts available at the local library.
Nowadays, the internet provides an abundance of information on any given subject. This is both a blessing and a curse: students can find a wealth of books and articles relevant to their search, but sifting through that information and making sense of it becomes more of a challenge. Though we may refer to today’s students as “digital natives”, many of them struggle with basic research skills, particularly those related to online search.
We’ve provided a short guide to help teachers improve the research process for students. We hope that this will not only help students with their immediate projects, but also build the organizational, analytical, and collaborative skills they will need to succeed in today’s information-rich environment.
Organize the mess of documents
When students research by finding articles on the internet, they become subject to the habits that the web promotes: clicking hyperlinks, amassing information in a haphazard way, skimming rather than reading sources, and exhibiting promiscuous and distracted attention. A 2008 study from University College London examined the behavior of visitors to two popular online research sites. The group found that online researchers spent very little time reading the resources they found and tended to squirrel away documents without assessing their validity or usefulness. When students succumb to this behavior, the result is a large quantity of disorganized links, many of them irrelevant to the students’ inquiry.
Students benefit from having a centralized place to store and organize these documents. Displaying them visually helps students quickly find what they need and gives them a sense of what they’ve already amassed. Merely going through the process of uploading a website, PDF, or Google doc to the Actively Learn Research Projects section enables students to pause and ask, “Is this article going to be useful for this project?” It encourages them to be more discriminating in what they select for their research.
Labeling the different articles that students add to their Research Projects section furthers the process of organizing their sources and figuring out how they fit together. It encourages students to investigate the common themes among the sources they’ve found and how they will be useful to their search. Students can choose thematic labels (“women’s roles during the Civil War”) or strategic ones (“counterargument”). The important thing is for students to be thoughtful in how they choose their sources and to see how the various documents relate to their project.
Critically evaluate sources
Before the introduction of collaborative technology in the classroom, the student research process was largely invisible to the teacher. Students might submit a bibliography to give teachers a sense of which sources they were using, but even then the teacher was not certain how the students were interacting with the material. Were they questioning the arguments presented in the documents or accepting them at face value? Did they see the relationship between two different lines of thought? Were they evaluating the writer’s bias?
All that has changed now that students can annotate their sources and make their notes visible to their teacher. Closely reading and annotating sources should be a required part of the research process, one that benefits students in multiple ways. First, it breaks through the tendency to skim internet articles and encourages students to closely read what they find on the web. Second, gaining visibility into the student research process enables teachers to provide better guidance to students. Teachers no longer have to wait until they see the first draft of the student’s research paper to understand how the student is thinking about the material he or she is interacting with. Lastly, it saves students time by leaving a record of their thoughts that they can then easily integrate into their research paper. Gone are the days when students revisit an article and wonder, “What was this one about again?”
Collaboration is another aspect of the research process that can be improved by technology. With Actively Learn, sharing a resource with another student and annotating it together is as easy as clicking a button. Whereas research partners once worked in parallel paths with each student engaged in his or her own part of the project, the ability to share annotations and documents enables students to work collaboratively and discuss ideas as they do their research. The result is a much more coherent project that reflects the consensus and participation of all students involved.
Collaboration around research is increasingly important as students prepare to enter a workplace that is characterized by teamwork. Knowing how to communicate with peers and share resources effectively is a valuable skill. Students may also find that gaining insight into their peers’ research process enables them to improve their own study habits and become more efficient thinkers and writers.
University College London, “The Google Generation: the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future,” January 11, 2008, http://late-dpedago.urv.cat/site_media/papers/425.pdf.