Tracy Derrell is a writer with an extensive background in education. She has studied journalism, fiction and non-fiction writing, and spent sixteen years as a middle school English teacher.
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When my classroom first got computers, I couldn't wait to let my students use the Internet to research the topics we were covering. However, the need to provide them with Internet research tips quickly became apparent when one student excitedly showed me a research paper she'd done for another teacher that consisted of two pages that were copy and pasted directly from Wikipedia. I chatted with my colleague, who was new to teaching, and realized she was unaware that her sixth graders weren't keen to the ins and outs of modern research, so she never provided them with the purpose, process, and pitfalls of writing a research paper.
Let's be honest: Because today's students are already so tech-savvy, it's easy to assume that their ability to search for Pokémon can easily translate to searches about the Civil War. But the Internet is a black hole of information, and certainly not all of it is accurate. In order to help your students learn to be proficient researchers, here are three tips to help you guide them.
Popular search engines are easy to use when you're looking for everyday information, but when teaching your students how to conduct research, teach them how to use Google Advance Search. This will allow them to zero-in on the exact information they need.
When I first walked my students through this, I started by searching for "ancient Egypt," the general topic for our project. My search yielded millions of results. In prior lessons, however, we had identified specific subtopics and we used these to narrow down the results. I reminded my students that solid, specific search terms are key to the research process. I also taught them how to use the advanced search function to limit results based on location, date published, file type, and even the domain type (.org, .gov, or .edu). This will allow your class to start with a wide-ranging topic and then break it down into manageable parts. Also, keep in mind that if you teach youngsters, a kid-friendly search engine like Kidtopia can yield more age-appropriate possibilities.
This might be the most challenging aspect of all. After all, even educated adults can easily read something online and blindly accept it as truth. Because this is such a crucial element of the research process, it will require a series of lessons and examples. Teach your students to evaluate sources on accuracy (Are the facts sourced? Can information be verified through another source?), authority (Is the source reputable? Is the author qualified?), and currency (Is the content dated and relatively recent? How often do views on the topic change?).
Learning to evaluate information also provides an opportunity to review reading skills. For example, you can revisit the difference between facts and opinions—an opinion-based text may not be suitable for the research your class is doing. The ability to cross-check sources is also a great skill to teach your students. After all, if the New York Times says it's true, it's probably true. Give them a list of really reputable, trustworthy sources to use as their go-tos.
I was once handed a research project from a trio of boys with a Works Cited page that read, "We got most of our information from the Internet and the rest came from our brains." I don't remember if they were trying to be funny or if they genuinely didn't understand the steps needed to correctly cite their sources. To avoid this situation in your classroom, provide a template that showcases how to cite different types of text and materials—online and offline. This will teach your students how to give proper credit and will minimize the chances of plagiarism.
The ease of copying and pasting makes plagiarism more tempting than ever. Younger students in particular may not grasp the gravity of its consequences, so you should devote ample time to showing them how to avoid plagiarism and how to properly use citations. Lessons on paraphrasing are also as important today as they were in the days of microfilm.