Making the potion: Focusing on the research process

A few days ago, I wrote about reflective learning, and really identified with Will Richardson’s and David Warlick’s comments about focusing on the learning and community, and how the process sometimes gets lost in the production of the product.  

Ironically, as I was reading Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix last night, I noticed that Harry has difficulty in Snape’s Potions class.  Frequently his “product” doesn’t meet Snape’s expectations.   After some discussion with Hermione and reflection, Harry realizes that he needs to slow down and focus on the process more.

Now that may be a simple analogy that doesn’t entirely fit, but the point is, that many research models that we use support this focus on process and self-evaluation, (such as the Big 6, or Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process, and many others).

Carol Kuhlthau  work particularly focuses on the process, students’ emotional stages as they move through it, and how we can support them during the process, by identifying when the most opportune times for intervention are, and what those types of interventions could look like.

As teachers and librarians, how can we provide more time for reflection and focus on the process and the learning?  But particularly, how can we do that in a way that builds a supportive community of learners that Will Richardson writes about?

Where I see the breakdown occurring is in several areas:

1.  Do we have expectations?  –The students may not be required to spend time on the research/reflection part of the assignment prior to the production part.   Kids are in a hurry(and so are we sometimes).  I’ve seen students starting their powerpoint on the same day they are doing the research assignment.  Where is the time for them to absorb what they are learning? Is the assignment so fact-based that all they are doing is regurgitating information?

2.  Do they have enough time for reflection during the process and afterwards?  In our haste to cover so much content, are we neglecting the time to reflect?   Can the research be spread out over several weeks or over the semester to create time for more deep inquiry?   (This would model authentic research–which isn’t completed in a couple of days or a week.)

3.  Do we ask students to evaluate the process?  The product gets evaluated in many different ways.   How can we help them be more reflective as they are doing research and share that reflection with other learners who are having similar experiences as a means of extending their reflection and gaining support?

4.  Do we help them build a network for discussing the process and extending their learning?   Or are they working in isolation?    Do real scientists and researchers work in isolation?  Do we?  How does helping students build a network help create a more authentic experience?

4.  Is our goal even to teach that reflection?  Should we?  What is our goal?  Product, process, learning?  Is the focus of the assignment actually reflective of what the goal is?

Some concrete ideas for focusing on process–

1.  a research process log or questionaire (And some other examples I’ve linked to).  These could be used at the end of a research period, weekly, or throughout the stages of the process.   One question I am pondering is how to make these types of questionaires more networked–post on a wiki? or blog?  Other ideas?

2.  a research blog –A place where students can write reflectively about their process, and dialogue with others in their class.

  •  If it seems too overwhelming to have each student create a blog, use a group blog and have a scribe for the week or day. 
  • Or  threaded forum may work better, where students can toss out topics they need help with and get feedback.
  • What about podblogs?–Group the students in the class into pods or groups.   Each group collaboratively writes a blog as they move through a learning process.  That way, the teacher is only checking in with four or five blogs per class instead of 30, and the group can interact and form community and share tips and help during the research process.    The 6 or 7 members of each pod can alternately post to the blog.

3.  Wikis–use wikis for students so they can collaborate as they collect information.   We have done this and it worked well.    Students across class periods working on the same topic were able to help each other gather the research.  (This would work best when there are a set of topics that all the classes are working on.)   As Will Richardson points out, Wikis have a much neglected but interactive discussion feature.  Pbwiki even incorporates chat features and yackpack, which allows recorded conversations to be sent back and forth.  How could those types of discussion tools be used along with a research wiki to stimulate discussion of the learning that was occurring?

4.  Google Docs–encourage students to use Google docs as they take notes or begin writing, and have them invite a few of their fellow students to join in as collaborators or just as readers.

5.  Sharing bookmarks–another route other than wikis is to have students set up accounts on or Furl or Google Notebook, because these tools not only allow students to bookmark their findings, but to share their bookmarks with other students.  Diigo not only allows students to bookmark their sites, but annotate them, clip them, and share them on a blog, email, or album.   Bookmarking a collection of sites that they can use later conveys the idea that the learning is ongoing, that they can “add to” what they have found later, in a way that a set of notecards or a bibliography doesn’t, because they seem more “final” and product oriented.   And these sites allow them to network and learn collaboratively from one another.

6.  Evaluation–As librarian extraordinaire Doug Johnson reminded me in an previous post,

“One of the things I’ve noticed is that when we ask students to follow an information problem solving model like the Big6, we tend to ignore the 1st step of defining the task and the last step of evaluating the product and the process. “It’s the final step where we need to ask students to reflect on both how good their product was AND how effective they were in doing their work. I’d ask students to always answer the question ‘What will I do differently next time to improve my work and skills?'”

Even if we ask students to reflect on the process along the way, asking them to reflect at the “end of the journey” or to try to pull their thoughts together after the process is important.   And having them do that in a way that is networked(like a blog or wiki discussion or a chat on Skype, or a classroom discussion, etc.) allows them to learn from one another, and build on one another’s evaluation and learning. 

That is where we are really having them extend their learning, deepen their reflection, and internalize their own learning process.

Other ideas, thoughts?  This potion I’m working on is not fully baked yet 😉

One thought on “Making the potion: Focusing on the research process

  1. Carolyn,

    This posting has helped to clarify for me how I want to structure my fall classes (MS/HS). Far too often I see students “rewarded” for producing an inferior product – possibly submitted late, frequently displaying little planning or evidence of effort – by a teacher who is grateful to finally have something to grade. Part of the problem is the lack of an assessment tool, like a rubric, available prior to the start of the project. It’s difficult for a student to meet or exceed expectations when unaware of the desired outcome. As you have pointed out, self-evaluation can take the form of journal entries, class discussions, various types of group interaction. Critiquing similar projects, done by their peers locally or in the wider world, would be another way to learn from concrete examples.

    One of my favorite graduate professors marked our papers as “Acceptable”, “Work in Progress”, or “Exemplary”. This approach suggests that excellence is always possible for every learner.

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