Monday, January 21, 2008

Research Matters -or- Making Research Matter

The ubiquitous research project can be a daunting process for students and teachers alike. A requirement in most English departments, the research process is often taught as a stand-alone unit, stiff and formalized, with no clear connection to other materials in the curriculum, let alone to real-world applications. The traditional research unit tends to spend a great deal of time emphasizing discrete skills: thesis writing, creating note cards, outlining, and using persuasive rhetoric. While these skills are helpful for students to know and understand, lost somewhere in the mix are the equally if not more important skills of creative and critical questioning, along with the practical application of research.

It’s time to step back and re-envision what research can be – a fruitful avenue for teaching students the purpose of research, namely, affecting change. Research can be a form of authentic assessment, with students engaged in both their local community as well as their larger global community. Research can be a way for students to look more closely and critically at issues facing their world, act on their research in hopes of bringing about a positive change, and share their research using a variety of writing styles.

By incorporating the principles of formative and authentic assessment, I've changed how I teach research skills to my tenth grade high school students. When introducing our research unit, I no longer start with what it is that the students will produce. Instead we start with a discussion about why research is done. The guiding premise of my research project is simple: research is done to effect change. By starting with this premise, students not only understand the value of research but also begin to understand themselves as researchers.

In the last three years I've moved from teaching a traditional research unit to making research something that we engage in throughout the course; after all, the principles of research are the same principles that we want students to incorporate and use in a variety of contexts. Whether we are talking about a novel or writing an essay, students should be evaluating and analyzing a text for its bias and meaning in order to form critical interpretations and original responses. These are the very same goals we have for teaching research. So moving research out of a "unit" and integrating it into the foundation of the course makes absolute sense.



Making Research Authentic
Today's students communicate with people all over the globe through use of instant message services, social networks, blogs, and forum sites, so finding an audience for our students' work outside the walls of our own classrooms is much easier than it was even five years ago. However, finding ways for students to present their research and writing to an authentic audience is only part of what makes an assignment a form of authentic assessment. In the world outside the walls of our classrooms, scientists and writers alike choose their subjects. Not only do they hypothesize where their subjects (whether an experiment or a character) will go, but they also test and retest their subjects. They consult colleagues and outside experts, and they revise their work before it is ever published. And even after it is published, scientists and writers continue to work with their subjects. So as much as possible, it is important to adopt this process inside the classroom.

As I've revised my research project, I've done away with the list of potential topics. The students and I both found it stifling. Instead, as we talk about the purpose of research, we also talk about who does research. Research is done by educators and doctors. It is done by writers, anthropologists, historians, musicians, environmentalists, and artists. So when they are given the rather large perimeter of finding a research topic about an issue currently affecting the culture where their pen pal lives, they come up with a wide variety of topics that interest them. This semester, when their pen pals were from Morocco, Liberia, and India, they came up with a number of unique research topics based on their personal interests. I had projects on everything from the prejudice Muslim women experience as a result of religious dress to the reliability of charitable organizations operating in Liberia. Students researched the loss of traditional storytelling in Morocco and the current plight of Untouchables in India. They chose topics that interested them, and as a result, they were invested in the process of researching.

Additionally, one of the requirements of my research project is to take the research outside the walls of our classroom. Students have to find a way to present their research to a targeted audience. This year some students worked together to put on a Cultures Fair for our school and community which raised money to help educate children in needy areas, while other students prepared lesson plans and taught their research to various middle school and elementary classrooms. I had students that created web pages and wrote letters to our local newspaper editors. I had students coming into class excited each day when ten new people had signed onto their Facebook group about aiding former Liberian child soldiers. And, you should have seen the students’ excitement when they started to have students from other schools reply to their groups. My students came into class talking about how a student from another local school posted a response to the group on helping those in Liberia who suffer from AIDS. A student from India responded to the Facebook group about Moroccan women’s access to education. My students used their research to raise awareness not only within their school and their community, but within the world. And isn’t that what research should do?

Utilizing Formative Assessment Techniques
More and more we see "formative assessment" (also known as assessment for learning) cropping up in educational journals along with discussion of differentiated instruction and multiple intelligences. The premise of formative assessment is that students have an opportunity to question, interact, practice, and reflect on the material being taught before use of any summative assessments. Formative assessment hinges on the student and teacher working together to help the student self-assess his or her learning. Students have an opportunity to practice a skill before they are tested on it. Teachers use informal assessment to adjust what and how they are teaching. So before a student has his paper cut to shreds by the teacher's red pen, both he and the teacher have feedback on exactly what he needs to work on before anything receives a formal grade. The student has an opportunity to master a skill. Such practices making teaching about learning rather than about grading.

Incorporating formative assessment into teaching research is a simple process. All I had to do was stop slapping a letter on every essay. Honestly, formative assessment was a relief. I could read a draft of an outline without having to keep a rubric or a score sheet handy. Instead, I read the students' work. After reading an essay, I would write a couple of targeted comments at the end, giving each student specific feedback on where he or she should spend time revising. I wrote questions at the end of each draft to help students reflect on the assumptions they made in their arguments. I used comment-only grading to help differentiate how I teach writing. Formative assessment practices helped me be a more effective writing teacher. It also helped the students become better at peer and self revision. When they weren't looking for the grade at the top of the draft, they focused on the comments, and then applied this technique to their peer and self revision. The students spent more time thinking about their writing, and isn't this what all writing teachers want to see?

The Cultures Project
I still make adjustments following each semester, reflecting on what worked and what did not. This past semester I spent more time on thinking about the comments that I made on each student's draft, making sure to write some of my comments in the form of questions. Next semester, I'll have the students keep all their written drafts in a file in the class room along with a log of when they turned in various drafts. In the past, I kept track of all of this information, a logistical nightmare. However, part of using formative assessment is giving the classroom back to the students. The more they have ownership of their research, the more they are invested in the project as a whole. The more the students have ownership of the classroom, the more they are invested in their learning. My goal is to be the facilitator that helps the students navigate the learning process. Together, we are both active learners in the classroom.

I've posted the project handout on my classroom website, and it is also attached HERE. Please feel free to adapt and use it if you are interested, and let me know how it goes!
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