Using Independent Research Projects in Instruction

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Where is the line between hand-holding and letting students work independently? How do we know if and when they are ready? In this lesson we will discuss the teacher's role in independent research projects and the strategies that preface independent learning.

Crawling Before Walking

Babies don't simply get up and start walking. There is a process of learning body control, stability, and of course, crawling before one can ever walk. This process is reinforced by the parents who ensure the environment is safe and provide necessary supports to learn to crawl, then stand, and then walk.

The parents provide the structure, but it's ultimately the child who has to do the work. Why am I talking about babies? Because the same happens in the classroom. No, the teacher is not teaching a child to walk when working on a research project, but the same wisdom applies: She gives students the tools they need to produce high level independent research without doing the work for them.

Let's take a look at the tools and strategies teachers can use to ensure each student is able to research successfully.

Resources and Skill Sets

Before students can figuratively walk, we have to show them how. If a student doesn't know how to access information in the library or on the internet, along with proper citation practices, we are setting this student up to fail. Depending on the age and grade level, teachers should adjust their instruction based on a student's prior knowledge.

How to Research

Take the time to provide the necessary resources, including a trip to the school or town library. The internet seems to be the universal research tool of the younger generation, and with that plethora of knowledge comes misinformation. How do we get students to look for correct information, and are they reading enough to find it?

We need to set our kids up for success by modeling best practices. This can be done a few ways. You can model how to answer a research question by using a projector and the internet. Make up a question, such as, How fast do cheetahs run? Next, ask the students what you should do first. Make them walk you through the process, which creates teachable moments along the way, such as identifying trusted domain names, looking for updated websites, and assessing the credibility of an author.

You can also do the opposite. Give the students a question, and in groups, have them blindly look for the answer. After they have completed the assignment, use the following time to debrief and teach the same techniques listed above.

How to Cite

Knowing which information to use is an important part of the research process, but relaying that information using proper citation to avoid plagiarism is also a challenge when it comes to your typical teenager. While working through the example questions mentioned above, take the time to show your students the difference between paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting a text, along with how to internally cite that information correctly.

The same goes for the bibliography and works cited page. Give students a handout or a web resource, such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), that explains the process of writing a full citation, then give them time to practice in groups with books in the classroom or printed resources.

The goal is to build a foundation of skill before they enter the world of independent research. Will they cite perfectly and always find the best information? No, but that's what the teacher is there for. Teachers fill in the gaps of missing skill sets and work through teachable moments while students research.

Outlines and Graphic Organizers

We have shown the student how to stand and have given them a safe environment, but now it's time for them to walk. After working through the skill-based resources that will help them gather their information, it's time to show them how to organize their work.

First comes the objective--what are your students researching, and what do you want them to get out of this project? Is the topic open-ended? If so, organizational guidelines are key. Start by helping students understand how to create valuable research questions and how to document their findings. Explicit handouts are important with this type of approach.

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