Making Research Flexible

My second grader came home the other day and announced he needed to do some research. He was working on an informational book about basketball, he explained. Who am I to stand in the way of a researcher?? He plopped down and got to work. Soon, he had a document filled with all of the things he wanted to know:

(Oh, the sadness when his research revealed that Michael Jordan is retired.)

Once again, the power of choice and interest was on full display. He was highly motivated because he was researching with a clear purpose: he had lots of stuff he wanted to know about basketball.   But that’s not what this post is really about. Watching him, I realized I was watching a researcher at work. I was watching a writer who was using research as a tool to support his writing.

I think that’s a shift we need to help our students make sometimes in their writing. Depending on their experiences with research writing, many of them have learned to be students who write research papers or complete research projects. Instead, we need to position them as writers who use research to support their writing. It may not seem like a big difference, but I think it’s an important shift if we want them to leave our rooms ready to be adult writers who can apply research skills in different situations. The problem with that shift is that it takes a lot of flexibility on our part.






Why Flexibility?

Research assignments are tricky. I wrote about the challenges of helping students choose topics a few months ago, but the challenges continue as you wade into research writing because students want to know all the details: How long? How many sources? What citation style?

Though students can certainly produce high quality research writing when given strict parameters, I think there’s a real benefit in flipping the script a little: How many pages do you need? How many sources are appropriate? How can you credit your sources in a way that makes sense for your task?

If we teach students to find their own answers to these questions–and steel ourselves for the inevitable messiness of doing so–they will be much more ready to ask themselves those questions when they approach future research writing opportunities.

First up: Length and Sources

I don’t care how invested your students are in a project, the first questions many will ask are “How long does this have to be?” and “How many sources do I have to have?”.  Or, sometimes, you have students asking  “How long can it be?” and “How many sources can I use?”. All of these questions present challenges. The student concerned about writing enough is often just writing to complete the task. The student who doesn’t want to be limited probably struggles with being concise.  In both instances, I like to respond with, “How long should it be?”  and “How many sources do you think you’ll need?” Before students dive into their research, they need to think about the question they’re trying to answer and its scope.  Are they ready to commit to a broad question that will require a lengthy response? Do they need to narrow to keep the research burden manageable? Are they asking a question that is easily answered and, thus, not really worthy of research?

One of the best ways to help them grapple with these questions is to examine some mentor texts with them. For the past month in my AP Language class, my students have been working on an argumentative piece that had very few parameters. We started by looking at a bunch of op-eds (relatively short pieces) and then some longer, more complex pieces.  As we examined the mentor texts, they noticed all kinds of interesting things. The op-eds usually had a stronger, persuasive voice and style; the longer, more academic pieces usually had more complex arguments. As the students developed their research questions, they also had to decide which type of writing they wanted to produce. What made the most sense for the type of argument they wanted to make? Which genre best fit the tone they were hoping to achieve?

Digging in and Organizing

This next piece of flexibility is one my students helped me with this year. My AP Seminar kids have done hours and hours of research this year and, despite my best efforts to keep them in line, they’ve all come up with their own quirky ways to organize that research.  At the beginning of the year I built elaborate graphic organizers for them to help them see patterns in their sources, citations, key points, etc.  That wasn’t very successful, but I wasn’t deterred! The second time around, I created a more elaborate, more helpful graphic organizer.  Still a giant fail.  Finally, I gave in and asked them what worked for them.  A few had picked up my organizers and were using them, but many had other systems. Some start a giant Google Doc and copy and paste quotes with links to the sources (Yikes! Messy! Horrifying!). One young lady takes painstakingly beautiful handwritten notes in her writer’s notebook. Others use the annotated bibliography feature on Noodle Tools.  Does it really matter? I don’t think it does. Sure, it’s a little more complicated when we have writing conferences, but it also reveals a lot of their thinking to me.  Some students are very linear in their thinking; others’ brains are a giant, disorganized swirl.  When I see their personal research process and discuss it with them in a writing conference, I can talk to them as a writer who is researching rather than a student who is filling in the boxes on my graphic organizer.

Finally: Citation

The last grizzly to wrestle? Citation. Having taught The Research Paper for so many years, I know most students don’t love learning citation rules, but many times it’s because they just don’t see the relevance. When was the last time you read a newspaper article with a Works Cited page at the end? The writing they see “in the wild” doesn’t always conform to MLA rules, so they have a hard time seeing why they need to learn them. Depending on the discipline, it might make more sense to use APA. Or, if they’re writing an op-ed, they probably need a combination of hyperlinks and in-text attribution.  Showing students models of all these different ways to credit sources correctly and empowering them to figure out which style makes the most sense for their piece puts them in charge of the writing and helps them see why they’re citing things. It’s more than just because you have to. It’s adding credibility to your argument! 

All of this flexibility can make for a very messy process, sure, but it also helps students see research as a tool rather than as a task. Hopefully, that means it’s a tool they’ll continue to use.

How do you create authentic research writing experiences for your students? I’d love to hear what you do to make students write as researchers! Connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie or comment below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s