The following article is adapted from our upcoming book on future-focused learning. It talks about how to teach learners to build solid research skills for school and for life.
How do we help our learners develop research skills that will serve them practically in school and life?
Having this set of information location and management abilities in any digital-age survival kit applies equally to students, teachers, and everyday people. In the classroom, we teach it using the process of Information Fluency.
We define this as the ability to unconsciously and intuitively interpret information in all forms and formats. It helps us extract essential knowledge, perceive its meaning and significance, and then use it in real-world tasks. Additionally, it’s about being able to find meaningful information from what's on hand and then use it constructively.
Information Fluency is one of the many valuable skills our students must possess today. That’s why it's one of the Essential Fluencies of modern learning which we presented in our book Mindful Assessment.
5 Steps to Build Solid Research Skills
There are five distinct stages to Information Fluency, which we call the 5As:
- Ask—Asking involves fully understanding the problem being solved, identifying key words, and then forming questions around them. We must strive to ask meaningful and purposeful questions to obtain the most relevant and useful data possible.
- Acquire—This involves determining where our information is and the skills needed to find it. We build solid research skills by giving ourselves enough data to work with. Thus, we must acquire information on what we want to know from plenty of traditional and digital sources.
- Analyze—This stage is about organizing, triangulating, and summarizing the collected data. We always check the content for relevancy and credibility. Afterward, we authenticate it and arrange it all appropriately for the most efficient application possible.
- Apply—For our learners, this usually involves creating some kind of a product. It could mean an essay, a report, a presentation, an experiment, or a multimedia project. It could also mean simply participating in a debate or even creating an argument against another point of view. No matter what, at some point the knowledge we gather must be used in the context of our original purpose for conducting our research.
- Assess—This is the all-important debrief stage of the research. Here we ask questions about the processes and the information we gathered and reflect critically on both. We assess what was learned and how it was learned, what worked, what didn’t work, and how the process and the product could be made better next time. Assessing also includes making a plan for acting on these reflections, internalizing new learning, and transferring our experiences to other situations and circumstances.
The Ocean in Motion
The Internet as we know it is a swelling ocean of information. Navigating the steady flow of that ocean can be hazardous, and certainly for someone who is not informationally fluent. Although it’s possible and acceptable, the 5As don’t need to be followed as a linear pathway for doing useful research.
When engaging in research during any lesson, learners can use each stage of Information Fluency in a cyclical way.
In fact, revisiting previous stages as they gain new insights is one of the best ways to use it. Ultimately this creates a common language between teachers and learners that both can grow with.
As young learners utilize Information Fluency over a period of months or years, their capacity for it increases. However, to build solid research skills that matter we must go deeper into these processes. Understanding their internal workings and how they can benefit learners helps us impart that knowledge more easily. What follows is a more in-depth discussion of Information Fluency. You'll decipher specific skills and actions that demonstrate how to practically apply the 5As.
What am I looking for, and how might I best structure questions that lead to it?
This involves compiling a list of critical questions about what knowledge or data is being sought. The key here is to ask questions with focus and purpose, because they yield the most useful answers.
Asking well-considered exploratory questions trains our minds to think critically and search for useful data. It also helps us unearth the most valuable information sources in any personal knowledge quest. If a learner has a full awareness of what is being researched and has specific questions about it, that's a great start in building solid research skills.
However, if learners are unclear about their intended destination, they could waste a lot of time while researching their content. They could be leafing through books or surfing the Web and getting nowhere. Even worse, they could head down the wrong “information alley” and get distracted from their purpose. For this reason, the questions we ask must be designed to lead to points of discovery and realization. That begins with knowing what we're looking for and why it’s important.
Where should I look, and how and to whom should I ask these questions?
The information learners seek won't always be in one location. In addition to one viable source, they must utilize as many others as possible. This means being prepared to access sources that are both digital and non-digital in nature. Books, articles, libraries, videos, and even people provide many different information avenues.
In this acquisition stage, the goal is to amass a diverse database of knowledge that can then be filtered and edited in the following stages. It isn’t necessary to have really read content in depth quite yet. As one suggestion, the student could take a quick cursory glance for relevancy, and gather all the search findings into lists for later scrutiny.
Our learners will also be working to optimize search behaviours in order to obtain the best results. Learning and using advanced search techniques will help immensely with the speed of their research.
How do I know the information I find is useful, valid, and authentic?
The next step is to navigate through our information to authenticate, organize, and arrange it all. This also involves ascertaining whether information is true or not, distinguishing good from bad, fact from opinion, and finding slant or bias. When it comes to online content, a percentage of that information can be quite meaningless. All collected data will require scrutiny and organization. The learner could look at this stage as performing background checks on the data they collect.
For example, many search results will display similar threads that point to repeated experience and commonalities. Some sources will share more threads than others, and the less often-seen "facts" will suddenly start to take a back seat. This isn't foolproof but it's just one of the many ways the facts can begin to reveal themselves.
To help build solid research skills, students should examine any collected data and its sources up close. They should listen and watch all videos using an awareness of Media Fluency skills. Encourage them to take their time internalizing what that article or webpage is trying to say, who wrote it, and why. Do they disagree or agree? Lead them towards getting a sense of how this awareness fits into their research scheme.
This might be the area of Information Fluency that your learners will spend most of their time in. Depending on the scope of the project or task, they'll move between the Acquiring and Analyzing stages.
How will I use what I’ve learned?
Once data is collected and verified and a solution is created, the knowledge must then be practically applied. After all that hard work asking, acquiring, and analyzing, your learners have got to make that knowledge work. This is done by applying it to the original problem or challenge.
If their question isn’t answered or their challenge isn’t conquered in the final phase, it’s time to back up a few steps. This doesn't mean they've failed; it’s simply a process that sometimes has to be revisited.
How can I be sure I’ve accomplished my research goals and how best can I improve this process?
The final stage is about thoroughly and critically revisiting both the product and the process. Learners can have lively discussions about how their research journey could have been more efficient, and how their solution could be applied to similar challenges.
Assessing is a reflective stage in the journey. The learner looks back at the steps they took to find what they were looking for and considers what their use of knowledge has produced. Reflective questions for this stage can include things like:
- Is our problem solved?
- Is our question answered?
- Is our challenge met?
- What did we learn?
- Was the information we found ultimately useful? Why or why not?
- What could we have done differently?
- How could we have streamlined our process and made it more efficient?
- How can we use what we’ve learned in other situations?
One resource that can help with this process immensely is our Ultimate Cheatsheet for Critical Thinking. The questions it features are very useful in helping us to reflect critically by asking pointed questions for us to consider. Many teachers have found this an indispensable resource to support inquiry.
As learners work to build solid research skills, they'll run into hitches and roadblocks that may discourage them. It is, after all, a challenging process. Remind them doing research well requires the savvy to examine our sources for reliability and credibility, and processing the information into a well-oiled project. This takes time and should not ever be rushed. Learning is a journey, not a race.