Fear, Loathing, and Research

By Jennifer Jones

Defining the Problem

The majority of my students are uneasy with research and for a long time I couldn’t figure out why. After all, in many ways the Internet has made research easier than ever. But the never-ending web can also be overwhelming for students.
For instance, when I was in third grade and writing a report on the chickadee, my research was limited to resources at my local library. Today, a third grader can Google “black-capped chickadee” and receive 220,000 results. Even with a clear rubric, students can become overwhelmed and their internal dialogue may run something like this:
  1. Do I embed a sound clip of the distinctive birdcall?
  2. Should I give a history on its selection as a state symbol?
  3. How many sources do I need?
  4. Do I need to cite images?
Accustomed to posing questions where solutions are easily found online, many of my students hesitate to begin a project where definitive “answers” won’t be found in a class period or maybe even by the end of the project. In fact, abundant sources can inadvertently limit students’ exploration and development of their own research questions.
If students know they need to use two sources, they may grab the content from the first two websites and ignore the rest. This is often the case when students procrastinate and are rushing to meet a deadline. The focus is on task completion, rather than on discovery.
Defining the Solutions
  1. Zone of intervention
    Understanding the sequence of emotions accompanying research and those moments when students could benefit from advice on their next step is critical. During initiation-the first of seven stages in Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process* -learners may feel uncertainty, followed by optimism during the second stage when the topic comes into focus. Ideally, students progress from a state of confusion to a feeling of accomplishment as they gather and evaluate information and then present their newly acquired knowledge. Along the way, teachers and librarians can support students by being attuned to when they need help.
  2. Project-starter strategies
    When I tell students that my role in the first library lesson is to equip them with tools for collecting and citing their research so they can focus on thinking about their topic, you can hear the collective sigh in the room. Some ideas I share with students are the following:
    1. Use citation software such as NoodleTools or EasyBib to take notes and collect citations.
    2. Cite everything as you go. It is easier to delete a citation than to go back to find a source you didn’t cite initially.
    3. Use an electronic encyclopedia to build your background knowledge of the topic.
    4. Approach the project in stages and be open to revising your thesis and ideas as you learn more.
    5. Sometimes the best research is a human resource. Ask a librarian if you are struggling with research.
Practicing how to think critically about a topic through research is a valuable life skill. As they move through increasingly complex questions, students are practicing for a lifetime of decisions they will make as digital citizens.
Jennifer Jones holds a degree from Smith College and Salem State University. She is a librarian at St. John’s Preparatory School, a Xaverian Brothers-sponsored 6-12 school for boys in Danvers, Massachusetts. Additionally, she serves as an academic coach for a cohort of athletes and students on academic probation at a local college. Prior to becoming a librarian, Jennifer worked in grant writing and managed a community service-learning program. Find her on Twitter @sjplibrary or contact her by email.

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