Making Research Relevant: A Quick Way to get Researchers Writing

what to do when you feel stuck

We came back from school this week and my students in AP Seminar are diving headfirst into a big research project.  They’ve done some researching, started annotating sources, done a lot of thinking…so now what?

I knew my kids needed some more direction from me, but I wasn’t exactly sure what they needed until I revisited this list we had hanging on the back wall of our classroom:


We made this list on the day we turned in the last major research essay when they had so many ideas for what they’d do differently next time.

This time they are doing a better job annotating, but I realized that I needed to tackle #2 head on: Write sooner–your research won’t be done ever so just get going.

Drafts are due next week and not a single kid had started writing. They weren’t really procrastinating; they just didn’t think they were ready.

I think I know why. Research projects are usually pretty regimented in school: first gather sources, then annotate, then cite, maybe pull important quotes, create your bibliography, etc. Many times there are check-ins (with points!) for each step. Students learn they cannot move on to the next step until they’re “done” with the the preceding one. 

There are certainly lots of benefits to all these checkpoints, but in the past few years I’ve started to realize that that’s not necessarily the most authentic research experience.  Many times, you have to start writing before you’re technically “ready”. The writing helps you stumble down a new path or uncover a problematic claim or discover you’ve missed a certain perspective. When that happens, you can to circle back and research some more.

My students started to understand the true messiness of research after the last piece  they wrote, but now that it was time to truly embrace the mess, they were scared. They wanted a formula. How many paragraphs and what goes in each one? Though that would certainly be a less messy option for all of us, it’s not really helping them make the choices they need to make as writers to communicate what they want to communicate.  

With Rebekah’s awesome post about the power of talk in writing workshop fresh in my brain, I knew I needed to do something that pushed them to talk through their ideas. I also knew, though, that these particular students LOVE to argue and question and suggest.  If I wanted to get them writing, I needed a different kind of talk.  I wanted them to use their talk to organize their own thinking first. Pushing each other can come later.

Here’s what I did.


First: Partner up

I organized my desks into pairs of two, gave each student a large index card, and instructed them to write their research question at the top. What are you trying to find out?  I explained one person would be the talker and the other would be the silent note-taker.

Next: Talk and Take Notes

I had them exchange cards with their partner. The note-taker’s charge was to say “Tell me what you’ve figured out so far” and then silently take notes. I set my timer for 4 minutes and said the talker had to keep going no matter what. The kids didn’t like it at first; they wanted to interject or ask questions. About two minutes in, though, the talkers started to slow down and listen to themselves. I think our students don’t often have time to ponder an idea out loud, to let something sink in. Conversations can be so fast that there isn’t time to sit with an idea. The note-takers, too, warmed up to the process. Some started jotting questions in the margins. Others began organizing the talker’s different points.

When the timer dinged, we switched roles and started over. We repeated the process a few times until students had note cards jam-packed with their thinking.


Step Three:

Get writing

At that point, we had twenty minutes left of class–the perfect amount of time for silent, sustained writing that wouldn’t stress anybody out. I sent everyone back to their original seats, instructed everyone to open up a fresh Google Doc, and start writing. 

I gave them a few options:

  • Use the notes to make an outline
  • Make two lists–what you know and what you still need to find out
  • Look at the most developed portion of your note card and try to turn that into a paragraph
  • Do a journal-style reflection about how your thinking is developing


For twenty minutes, I listened to the beautiful sound of furiously clicking keys. No one was sighing with frustration, no one was lamenting that they had no idea where to begin. The talking had helped them figure out a starting point, and the notes helped nudge them along. At the end of the hour, some kids had full paragraphs, a few had outlines, and some had lists of of things they needed to find out, but they all had broken through that terrible barrier of beginning.  Who knows if they’ll end up keeping any of that writing for a final draft, but now they have started stumbling down the path. 


How do you get your students to get started writing when they’re timid or resistant? Do you have any tricks for un-sticking “stuck” writers? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below on Twitter @TeacherHattie or over on the Moving Writers Facebook page!


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