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Breaking Away from the Traditional Research Paper

As you flip through the standards for your grade level, one of the sections that can make your stomach drop is Research. Whether you're teaching the basic skills of research or having students delve into in-depth subjects, this can be a daunting topic for many teachers. I remember hovering over computer lab sign-up books to see when 4th quarter dates would be released, so I could get a block of time reserved for a big project in the spring. However, research doesn't have to be a stand-alone unit that lasts for weeks on end anymore. Students can hone their skills and sharpen their understanding of key topics and concepts by employing the methods of research in shorter segments. Whether your classroom offers a high-tech or no-tech environment or low-tech, there are lots of ways to incorporate research that don't involve assigning a lengthy dissertation.

[image: students working on short research projects]
by Jens Rötzsch / Some rights reserved

The concept of a traditional research paper can be a big contributor to the overwhelming aspect of this particular standard. I haven't had students complete a traditional research paper in years. There are so many other fabulous ways for kids to present their information and showcase their area(s) of expertise. Research can be much more than a single endless written document, but we don't want students to get caught up in a bells and whistles showcase of technology either. A happy medium that shares information effectively after employing key research skills is the best final product. I had great success with students creating multi-genre research books on personally selected topics. Students were able to synthesize and present data in uniquely visual ways. Creativity was on the loose as one student researching NASA crafted invitations for the first moon walk; a shopping list for Lewis and Clark's supply needs was devised by another student researching explorers in the Americas. While "pure" research time was needed, synthesizing the information needed to craft and create the visual presentation of the topic involved a level of deeper thinking that contributed to an amazing final product. These visual aspects could all be done with or without technological resources.

The idea of mini-research can be a lifesaver when you find your students working with limited technological resources or a limited time frame. Rather than slaving over a traditional research paper, the concepts of researching, citation, writing, and publication can all be mastered just as effectively with shorter projects. The Short Reports section1 shared by Smekens Education Solutions offers some ideas to get you started. The six page mini-books created by elementary students could work in any subject and at any level. Having students be responsible for a single page in a class book is also a great way to build an impressive final product. These could be developed to cover a topic or concept. A history class could create a book highlighting courage during a specific time period, or a science class could compile a resource guide detailing key breakthroughs in a chosen field. If students print any research information, this could all be filed somewhere in the classroom for future use when online capabilities may be limited.

By teaching skills through mini-projects and utilizing blended learning concepts, we can alleviate some of the stressors that used to be associated with our forays into the research world. One of the benefits of blended learning is that everyone doesn't have to be on the same page at the same time. Therefore, if you only have a few devices in the classroom for students to do online research, this doesn't have to put the whole class on hold. Scholastic shares some wonderful tips for helping students navigate online research2. Some time spent reviewing these could make online research time much more effective. I really like the activity designed to help students narrow the focus of search terms. I think it's a lesson many adults still need to learn!

Depending on the nature of the project, you can form research groups and send a single representative from the group to one of the research device stations while others work on different aspects of the projects, like visual components or gathering information from those big dusty things; I think they call them books… Your media specialist can be a great resource for helping you pull titles that fit the parameters of the topic(s) students are investigating. I've had past classes work on basic research skills and synthesizing information by selecting a 20th century decade of interest and presenting the stand-out characteristics of said decade. A cart of books highlighting the 20th century gave students great resources for fashion, people, and events. Students can also do part of the hunting and gathering process outside of class and have their findings ready to go when needed.

The concept of the traditional research paper isn't the only way to teach research skills, and multiple visits to a computer lab aren't needed either. The skills and strategies to gather and synthesize information can be just as easily gleaned through blended learning and mini-projects. By shortening the final product and changing up the visual components, we can provide our students with effective, flexible opportunities to showcase high-quality research in any subject area and with any resource base.

Additional Resources & Works Cited

1. Teach Research Writing in Smaller Mini-Units. Smekens Education

2. The 6 Online Research Skills Your Students Need. Scholastic Instructor


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