Process Over Product: Allowing Student Researchers to Think for Themselves

An English Composition professor learns that it takes more than screencasting software for her students to truly learn their research strengths and weaknesses.

One of the hallmark assignments in most English composition courses – and many other college courses, for that matter – is some sort of research essay or project. When I assign my composition students a major research essay, I take them to the campus library to work under a librarian’s guidance at least twice. The looks on students’ faces as they conduct research often range from confused or frustrated to passive or indifferent. I wonder what my students are really seeing when they search library databases and Google Scholar. Their understanding of the research process is either reflected through their facial expressions and reactions, or it’s hidden – not visible to me at all. In my attempts to provide students with a way to show what they were learning as they navigated online research tools, as well as to incorporate more technology into my writing class, I revised some research assignments leading into the essay from brief, written reports to visual screencasts. I wanted students to see for themselves and to show me and their classmates the behind-the-scenes view of their research methods. I wanted to prepare students to think more critically, not necessarily about the research essay they were working toward, but about the research process. Thanks to my overly-directive instructions, I accomplished that goal – but only in part.

I try to anticipate problems when I write assignments, and these research assignments were no different. Would students resist using technology that is not specific to writing in a composition class?  Would all of the students have access to some sort of screencast software or platform? The problems that I anticipated either didn’t happen or didn’t happen to the extent that they hurt the main goal of the research assignments, whether written or visual: to effectively use a database and a search engine to research sources on a chosen topic. What I didn’t anticipate – that I would sabotage the assignments for many students – did happen. In the past, I assigned students to conduct research using a library database and a search engine, and then to explain their research process in writing. I thought that revising the assignments so that students would screencast their searches would allow them to see and reflect more critically on their methods – what they understood, and what they didn’t understand or needed help with when using these search tools. Though my idea sounded great in theory, my method for explaining it actually worked against me by leading my students too much rather than allowing them to do the thinking. As a result, the only thing that was transparent was that students could follow directions – they didn’t really learn much about the process of researching online.

Specifically, the assignment prompts students to do the following:

Search a library database: “From our Library’s website, go to each of these three databases:  Academic Search Complete, Lexis Nexis Academic, and ProQuest Research Library. Open each one and browse the advanced search page; make sure you’re on the advanced search, not basic. Judging from what each database offers, choose one and record/screencast why you might use this database over the other two for your topic. Then, screencast as you:

  • Find, open, and save a full text article.
  • Use the categories to the left of the page to find a text from a specific kind of publication: an academic journal, a transcript of a broadcast, whatever you like.
  • Scroll until you find a text that is NOT marked as available in full text form. Narrate as you use the Article Linker icon to find the article.
  • Click the citation icon to the right of the page and narrate as you use the database to cite or create a citation in MLA style.”

Search a search engine:

  • “Go to Google at google.com.
  • Do a general Google search (called a “query”) and briefly explain the results as you record.
  • Use the tabs at the top of the Google search page to find something other than a basic text related to your topic: you might consider a blog, image, or video. Briefly explain as you screencast why such a source might complement textual sources in your research.”

While these two assignments did achieve one my main goals – to integrate technology and writing – they only partially succeeded in making students’ research processes transparent. Students weren’t really recording their research methods – they were recording step-by-step what I had told them to record. Nor did the assignments successfully allow students to make the kinds of discoveries I had hoped they would make, again because they weren’t thinking through the research process on their own.

As you might suspect, the “A” students took these highly directive assignments above and beyond the requirements and took it upon themselves to think critically about their research and the overall process. For example, some used Google’s advanced search techniques, such as searching for exact phrases and searching for sources with a specific publication date or reading level. In the databases, some of these students clicked with purpose to narrow the search to peer-reviewed publications rather than searching randomly or only as instructed in the directions “for an article.”

However, these students were the exception. Many students simply did exactly and only what the instructions told them to do. For example, it took one student who had been struggling in my class all semester just five minutes to find a database; retrieve, open and save a full-text article; locate a magazine article; and create a citation. Would he have done all of this in such a short period of time without the specific instructions? Maybe so. But did these five minutes really reveal research as a process for him? Could he apply these steps and other research methods in another search situation? Probably not without specific directions. Further evidence that I had been too directive came when many of the writers in class struggled the most with evaluating sources or explaining their relevance to the topic rather than just finding them. As students began to draft the essay, it was apparent that some of them hadn’t conducted research with the essay in mind – they had simply followed the directions to find sources. When faced with the prospect of using sources to support an argument or analysis, they didn’t know what to write. Since evaluation requires true thinking rather than simply following steps, I suspected that the problems resulted because students didn’t have to think too hard when following my instructions to find sources.

Grading these research assignments also contributed to my teaching fail. The rubrics for the assignments were as straightforward as the instructions, but left little room to reward excellence or inspire improvement among weaker submissions. I assessed students on their abilities to:

  • “Use a library database and a search engine to find valid, credible sources related to your topic.
  • Show your research methods visually.
  • Speak clearly as you explain your methods.
  • Show that you can use the tools provided by a library database.
  • Show that you can narrow source results offered by a search engine such as Google.
  • Explain what you learn from searching online, as well as what is still causing problems, confusion, or frustration.”

I provided these criteria to students before they completed the assignment.

In my mind, I planned the rubric so that students who searched for five minutes and narrated discussion of the first sources they found would not score as high as students who made thoughtful choices and navigated the database or search engine with insight. The problem was that even students who followed my directions exactly sometimes wound up with weak sources, simply because they hadn’t given any real thought to the research process – instead, they did what I had told them to do. I had to grade on how well students addressed the assignment prompts and the rubric, not on how well they used technology, because mine is a writing class, not one in technology. I didn’t necessarily want to grant good grades for simply following directions. But in the end, that’s what I had to do. This was my fail, and therefore my responsibility.

As I reflected on these assignments and their outcomes, I thought about what I had done wrong. Here’s what I thought I had done right: I assured them that the screencasts could show them making mistakes or getting lost in cyberspace – that learning happened not only when they did everything perfectly, but also when errors forced them to back up and try again. I taught them how to use Screencast-O-Matic, a free, web-based platform that uploads screencasts on its own site or directly to YouTube. I allowed students to use their own software if they had something useful on their computers, as well as to record using their cell phones or iPads if they wished. We spent a class period making practice screencasts and uploading them to YouTube and our course management site. I posted an online tutorial on Screencast-O-Matic, and I created a “practice” online discussion board that they could use to experiment before recording the screencasts they would submit for a grade. Perhaps I should have stopped here, but it was too late – I had already explained the detailed instructions in the prompts. Regardless of what we did in class or how I encouraged them to think about their topics and research methods, they were doomed to follow my explicit prompts to the letter rather than thinking for themselves.

It’s possible that screencasting isn’t even the best option for showing research methods in visual form. In future iterations of these assignments, I could allow students to provide any form of visual evidence, such as screen shots or photos organized into a presentation or report. I’m also experimenting with e-portfolios to organize and showcase work from an entire semester. I could further focus the e-portfolio so that students to collect, explain, and evaluate their research as part of a more comprehensive portfolio site like Weebly or Tumblr. We could work through podcasts accompanied by screen shots or photos of their searches. Or, I could stick with the screencast assignments but improve them, offering instructions that are less directive and allowing students to think more for themselves. For example, I could encourage students to log into a database and simply experiment with the tools, explaining how each tool (such as narrowing by date or finding articles in full text) might assist them in their research. The main question I need to ask is, what will enable my students to most effectively show their thinking and learning?

Despite this failure, I still think it’s important to assign projects that get students to think about the research process more than simply plugging in the first sources whose titles they skimmed and that they suspect might support the thesis. I also think it’s important to continue integrating technology into assignments, even (or especially) in a course that is based so heavily on text. But I know that I need to revise my instructions so that I both provide support for students and require them to think for themselves.

 

About the Author

Lisa Beckelhimer is a professor of English Composition at the University of Cincinnati, a founding member of the English Department’s Teaching & Technology Committee, and a huge fan of multi-modal assignments in her composition classes – when they work. She is always experimenting with ways to integrate technology into writing instruction.




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