Learning research skills

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.

  • Beverley Eyre


    I think that your blog begs the question: can anyone learn anything? Or, if it’s a skill that needs to be learned, can anyone learn to do anything? My experience tells me that the answer is an unqualified ‘no’. More, I think by making kids think that they *can* learn to do anything with a high level of skill, you’re setting them up for all sorts of emotional problems when they begin to understand that they just *can’t* do something everyone around them is telling them they *can* do if they just tried harder, or paid attention more.

    Learning to be competent at ‘research’ is not at all a simple thing. It involves many executive functions in our brains, including sorting and organizing according to a scheme, inventing that scheme, judging each item for its importance/relevance, imagining the final package given what remains, and creating that final package. More, if it’s hard to find the data you need, you need to be creative and imaginative in finding new ways to search.

    Sadly, most people can’t do any of those things. It would be better to create new and better ways to identify the skills that each individual kid *does* have and stop lumping them all into a huge undigested splank. Not only does one size not fit all in education, it rarely fits even two.

  • Beverley: Thanks for thinking about this!

    We definitely don’t settle for vague advice like “try harder” or “pay attention more.” We’re explicit about techniques and concepts: here’s how you mindmap; here’s what to look for when searching; break things down into manageable tasks; try books in addition to the Internet, and ask librarians for recommendations if needed. We encourage her to figure out things that work for her. For example, study groups are great for her motivation and focus, so we have them.

    I believe people can learn, and that we can learn much more than we sometimes tell ourselves we can. I’ve met so many parents who wring their hands and say oh, they’re no good at math, they’re useless at fractions, and so they can’t help their kids. W- and I may find some subjects harder to understand than others, but we’d rather model the behavior of trying to figure something out, and working together to understand something. (Okay, grade school subjects haven’t been _that_ much of a stretch, but maybe when we hit calculus again…)

    We don’t tell her to work harder. She learns pretty well, actually, and is quite proactive about the things she wants to learn more about. Instead, we help her learn how to manage her time, we tell her about techniques, we help her find and fix her mistakes, and we show her how to build on her strengths. There are a lot of things that aren’t taught in class, and it’s fun discovering what tips we can share to make the path a little easier.

    People might not be able to learn _everything_ off the get-go, but they can certainly make progress towards them, even overturning commonly-accepted limitations along the way. We don’t expect her to be totally awesome at everything she picks up. Down that path lies the fear of failure! We do, however, consciously think about what’s needed in order to learn something, and how people learn, and how we can help structure learning experiences for herself and for us.

    Focus on process, not just outcome, and outcomes surprisingly tend to take care of themselves.

  • Joel

    Hi, Sacha.

    Just a note to share…when I was required to perform a survey of current research in an area of study (one of those classes you take at the beginning of the master’s program to figure out where you want to focus) I ran across a Firefox add-on called Zotero. It did a handy job of helping to collect and format the information for the bibliography, supporting and exporting to several styles and formats.

    I wish you the best on the “outside”.

  • Joel: Ooh, right! I should totally get her on that, if she’s going to do her research on the Internet… Thanks for the suggestion!