February 6, 2012

Learning research skills

February 6, 2012 - Categories: learning

How do students learn how to research information for school: how to ask questions, find resources, take notes, paraphrase, organize, and summarize?

I’m curious about this because we’ve been running a study group for J- and her classmates, and the kids have such different skill levels when it comes to research. They’re in Grade 8 and are working on history projects about the settlement of Western Canada. In terms of research skills, J- seems to doing okay. She’s reasonably self-motivated, knows that she needs to go beyond just the textbook or the Wikipedia page, decent at paraphrasing, organizing and presenting what she’s learned. She needs more nudging to take notes, though, instead of browsing through lots of pages and relying on her memory. Another classmate of hers turned up with what looked like a copy of a few paragraphs out of a textbook, but hadn’t paraphrased it or reorganized it yet according to the inquiry questions, didn’t seem to have drawn from other sources, and couldn’t answer some of my questions about the material.

When we volunteered to accompany the students on a field trip to the Ontario Science Centre, we saw an even wider range of study skills among the students. Some focused on the assignment they were given, quickly completing the sketches. Others were unprepared. They didn’t bring pencils despite knowing they would need to sketch, and they misunderstood the instructions and needed help getting back on track. I can imagine how it might be difficult to give individual feedback and attention in order to help people develop the skills they need, even with only twenty students in the class.

I try to think back to when I was their age. I don’t remember my research skills – probably middling, at best. I wasn’t particularly academically-inclined, although I loved reading. I remember that some of my classmates were much awesomer. They turned in cogent and comprehensive reports on something or another. How did they learn? How can we help J- so that she learns these skills, too?

W- has been challenging J- to take more notes and to read the resources at a deeper level. I try to nudge her to check the library for books; not everything has to come from the Internet. We help her with mindmapping, organizing, editing. We model constant learning through conversations and the never-ending parade of library books through the house. Homework help takes up much of our evenings during the weeks that J- spends with us. Recognizing that this takes time and confidence that many parents don’t have, we help her friends out with homework when they drop by, too.

I have a lot to learn about research myself. I’ve had the benefit of additional learning, a master’s degree manifested in the slim volume of my thesis. There’s still so much I want to figure out – how to ask my own questions, draw on other people’s experiences as well as my own, organize my research and thoughts, and present them clearly through blog posts, books, and other forms. Maybe J- and I will learn more about research together.