Research Mini Lessons:Framing and Weighing Sources

Research writing has been a big part of my teaching for the past few years as I’ve moved more and more into the world of AP Seminar. In 2018 I spent most of my blogging time thinking about how to Make Research Relevant. That year and the years that have followed have yielded all kinds of learning for me about how to best help my students develop a researcher’s curious mindset. I think I’ve come a long way with helping my students see the relevance of their research, but in 2023, I’m revamping some of the ways I talk about the different elements of research with my students and zeroing in on specific skills that need tweaking as we move into second semester. 

First up is framing and weighing sources. I spent a chunk of my winter break grading research based arguments (mock IWAs for any AP Sem teachers reading this!), and I was struck by how…um…not great my students were at using the sources to support their claims. Going into the writing, we had spent all kinds of time finding high quality sources, evaluating them, and talking about how they all represented different perspectives or different voices at the table (see this blog post for an idea for how I do that). Students had created annotated bibliographies, I had conferred with them individually about their sources–they were totally set up for success!

I was surprised, then, when their papers were treating all the sources equally in their papers. I had taught them to qualify their sources, which (to me) meant explaining the value this source brought to the argument and perhaps acknowledging the limitations of this particular voice. The majority of my students, though, interpreted that as “list the source’s credentials and move on.” 

We ended up with a lot of this:

But I wanted something more like this:

My students were so caught up in the minutia of research writing–# of sources, citation, paraphrasing– that they were missing the big picture concerns like making a sound and compelling argument or demonstrating you understand the complexity of a problem

My students need to move beyond the basics–providing some background information for the source–to the next step of considering the power of each source in the service of the larger argument they are making. For their AP Seminar assessment, they’ll write another Individual Written Argument, but I can’t give them feedback on it. I can, however, do whole class mini lessons that are skill based. 

Mini lessons are, in my opinion, key to improving research writing because they allow you to zero in on just one skill at a time. That’s always hard to do when looking at a piece of writing, but I think it’s even more challenging when looking at longer research-based piece. The whole thing has to work together. And the whole thing is soooo long, usually.  Still, zeroing in on skills in small chunks is important because it gives students a way to improve the writing versus just complete it.

Here are two mini lessons that I am doing as my students work on their drafts of their next essays. 

Mini Lesson #1: Framing vs Qualifying

This is a relatively quick, 10 minute exercise that can be done at the beginning of class with the remainder of class as work time for the students to apply this lesson to their work. 

Lesson Steps:

  • Discuss what it means to “qualify” a source.  In my class, I predict my students would say that it means, literally, to list the source’s qualifications.  That’s true and an important thing to do, but it’s not the only thing they need to think about. 
  • Explain that you want them to try thinking about “framing” their sources: think beyond just the writer’s qualifications and try to contextualize the source a little. What kind of source is it? A study? An article? An op-ed? A chart?  Who published it? A for-profit group? A government entity? A peer-reviewed journal? 
  • Give students this handout and direct them to work with their table partners on comparing the two paragraphs. 
  • Use the questions and their noticings to have a group discussion; then, turn them loose on their own drafts to revise for better framing!

Mini Lesson #2: Analysis Math

This lesson was inspired by my long-ago career as a high school debate coach. If you’re familiar with the policy debate world at all, you may have heard the term “impact calculus.” I always loved this term when helping my debaters learn argumentation because the idea of an argument being like math made so much sense to them. Usually, high school students are used to the very concrete pro/con arguments that have a clear winner and loser. Impact calculus helps them deal more effectively with murky, flawed arguments where there are lots of good-ish solutions–no perfect ones!— and they have to advocate for the one they think is best. 

Thinking of it like a math problem appeals to them because certain things might subtract from the effectiveness of a solution, but that solution still outweighs the other solutions.  

Lesson steps:

  • Explain to students that we will be doing “analysis math” as we revise today.
    • Which sources add to the power of a claim?
    • Which sources subtract from the power of a claim?
    • Which side of the equation ultimately outweighs the other? 
  • Give students this handout and direct them to work with their table partners on comparing the two paragraphs. 
  • Use the questions and their noticings to have a group discussion; then, turn them loose on their own drafts to revise for better weighing of evidence!

Research writing is a big bite to chew, and it is tempting to focus just on the big picture so that everyone just gets them finished! If we slow down and zero in on skills, though, our students can take their research writing to the next level. 

What do you do to make research more skills more accessible with your students? Or what skills do you need to think about making more accessible? Comment below or reach out to me on Twitter @TeacherHattie.


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