Desperately seeking engagement

A chance plea from a parent and colleague Brian Smith on Twitter today led to a long discussion online about the research process and how it could be so much more meaningful for students than it is.

Smith was struggling to work with his 14 year old to generate a research topic.  The assignment the student was given was to pick “something of interest.”

While it seems very open-ended to allow a student to research whatever they want, as very often happens, the student was given the assignment with no advance preparation, brainstorming, etc., and expected to “come up with” a topic.

(I also wonder where the librarian was in this process.  As a number of us commented on twitter, teachers often don’t seem to perceive us as partners in the research process or even as helpful advisors sometimes, even though research is what we “do” for our campuses; but that is another post altogether).

Smith reflected his frustration in his tweet:


How do we tap into student passions when we ask them to really research something?  How do we stoke those fires, draw them in, ask for their voices and make it personal for them?     And are we(both teachers and librarians) providing enough inspiration and scaffolding throughout the research process?   What can all of us do differently to make this more meaningful for students–a rich, engaged and authentic experience where real learning and understanding occurs?

Carol Kuhlthau has done a tremendous amount of work on the research process, and her model is one I find very valuable because it speaks to the process, not the product.   She observed the behaviors of students while doing research and her model describes both the steps they experienced but also the emotions associated with each stage.   

 For example during the initiation phase, students feel anxiety and uncertainty as they seek to define the assignment and their topic.  That’s a normal way for students to feel, and it helps for both students, teachers, and parents to know that.   Her model does an excellent job of portraying those connections, and in her books, she elucidates many ways to scaffold research assignments for students so that they are supported during the more stressful parts of the process.


Kuhlthau also identifies a “zone of intervention” based on Vygotsky’s work on zones of proximal development, which is the zone during which help and scaffolding helps move students through the process and eases their anxiety.

So part of the issue I frequently see is that we aren’t sufficiently supporting students through the stress that characterizes the beginning stages of the research process.  

But another issue is something that Brian identified in his tweet–where is the passion?  His child was told they couldn’t do their first topic because another student had selected it–on a practical classroom level, this is understandable, but in terms of the student’s passion for the topic it isn’t.  If a student is interested in something, that is what they are interested in. 

Basically we are asking them to set aside their own passion because another student “claimed it” first.   And if we go back to Kuhlthau’s model, at the most stressful and difficult stage of the research process, we are adding to the stress by denying the student his own self-selected interest.   

One way to have balanced that in the first place would be to begin a research assignment by weeks of having students write about their interests, or clip newspaper articles, or to bookmark websites on delicious–then the student would have had already identified several of his/her interests and wouldn’t be left in a scene that is all too familiar to many of us who are parents or librarians–sitting with the child going, “Do you like this?  No…do you like this?   No? …aren’t you interested in this?”   

Another model which seeks to address the area of student passions is Ken Macrorie’s I-search model, which encourages students to be active participants in the research process and encourages use of primary sources as well.

So again, aside from scaffolding the process much more effectively, how can we tap into student passions?   How can we make the research process more real–more like the real research that researchers do?  Here’s a few ideas, but I would love to hear more.

1.  Give students time to consider their interests.  How many of us could “generate” a topic when approaching it completely cold.  The bells rings–okay, pick your topic.

2.  Consider having students, as I mentioned above, write about things that interest them or collect information for weeks or months prior to the assignment.

3.  As you move through your curriculum, have students keep a “research idea” log as things in the curriculum pique their interest. 

4.  Consider conducting research across an entire semester or year.   Two of our teachers are trying this this year–having students gradually collect articles of interest, compare Wikipedia with other sources, use delicious or furl to bookmark items, keep their eyes out for news stories on their topics and so on.  (Interestingly, this was partially driven by the fact that our main library will be closed in the spring when they will be writing their paper, but it’s been very very effective educationally.)

5.  Consider completely rethinking the “research project.”  Tell students they will write a research paper sometime during the year when it feels right to them.   Scaffold everyone at the beginning with assistance on logistics, but let students “strike when the iron is hot.”    (I know we are dealing with high school students, but….they might enjoy having this flexibility and spontaneity).

6.  Have students establish a blog or use a class bulletin board online as a way to explore topics, ask others for help and work collaboratively.  (What would have happened for the student above if the teacher had said–well, if you want to do this topic, and if you and the other student agree, how about the two of you working collaboratively on your research and your paper?  And then supported that with sharing web 2.0 tools that would have assisted them?)

7.  Consider how writing a blog entry or several blog entries is like writing a research paper–where you explore, document and share your investigations and passions.   Could a “blog” be a research paper and be even more meaningful because it’s published?

8.  Consider making the process more open-ended for students.  Every researcher does not end up with the same product in “real life.”  Why can’t the product grow organically out of the topic and student’s process?    Some students may want to create a video to inform others, while others may want to write a blog, and yet others may want to create a slide show and present their information to their peers.     Empower students to make those choices.

9.  If you are a classroom teacher, then realize that your librarian is and wants to be a real partner with you in research(and your tech coordinator may as well!)   Most school librarians have teaching degrees(in some states, this is required) and most have taught.  (and many were English teachers!)    Your librarian sees research in action every day, sees the problems students are having, sees where help is needed and wants to collaborate with you and plan with you.   Seek them out and don’t feel like you are bothering them or inconveniencing them.   (And librarians, don’t ever make teachers feel like they are inconveniencing you!)

But whatever you do–think about how to engage your students passionately in their research.  Think about how to make it authentic for students.  Rethink how you were taught the “research paper” and rethink how you teach it.   Throw out the old “box” and see what happens, because your students will benefit tremendously in the end.    And imagine “grading” research papers where every student was so engaged and passionate about their writing and their topic that they transcended the form.   Wouldn’t that make the process worth it for everyone?   It could even become the spark that leads a student on a life-changing path as they learn to shape their own learning.

7 thoughts on “Desperately seeking engagement

  1. Oh wow, so this is what everyone was all a “twitter” about today. I asked Diane what I had missed today b/c I did not have time read through pages and pages of twitter, so she gave me your name, Brian’s, and a few others. What a great way to crash thru all those missed tweets. Great post Carolyn, I can’t wait to share with some fellow South Carolinian LMSs. Tooften if one is not an LMS they don’t get our dilemma. Im glad you began this conversation.

  2. Hi Carolyn,
    Thanks for writing this post. I am certainly going to pass it on to some of my colleagues. I especially like the idea of having students research over months so that they have an archive of their interests. I’ll take that into my classroom. I’m trying the think of some ideas to add to your list. One I can think of, which adds on to your blogging point, is being able to show students they have an authentic audience is very powerful – like showing clustr maps on blogs, or how many people have viewed their video. They could even include this info in the reflections about their research.
    Thanks again!

  3. Hi Carolyn,

    This is a wonderful post. Great fan myself of both Kulthau and Macrorie.

    If you are looking for some “low hanging fruit” in regard to improving the motivational quality of research papers you are welcome to use this:

    This has been of interest to me for a long time.

    BTW, you post would make a pretty good article for a professional publication. Not all of our colleagues are blog-readers unfortunately.

    All the best,


  4. This is so powerful, Carolyn. This line: Basically we are asking them to set aside their own passion because another student “claimed it” first–I am so guilty of this. No more! Thanks.

  5. That’s an interesting point about whether we’re expecting too much in asking learners to “come up with” their own topic. Even our adult learners often have similar difficulties, when asked to come up with (there’s that phrase again!) a topic for their Key Skills projects and it’s most frustrating – I find myself wanting to exclaim in exasperation “Surely there’s SOMETHING you’re interested in!”

    It never really occurred to me that maybe it’s not that easy after all. We do encourage them to start thinking about a topic well before we start the project (about a month before in most cases), but there’s always a few suffering from “I don’t know what to write about”

  6. Carolyn,

    Thanks for articulating the dilemma of the Librarian who has the knowledge and desire to help but so often is left out of the research loop until the end of the process.

    I have a small but dedicated core group of teachers who understand and value how I can both assist the students and make the teacher’s life easier.

    The closed we’ve come to the model you describe is a History Day activity that our middle school social studies teacher proposed. She hoped to have students in grades 6-12 chose a topic that could be tied into some facet of world history (theme of conflict and compromise), then host a culminating fair-type exposition one evening at the school. She got approval from administration but hasn’t been able to really get the project under way this school year. So far, I’ve set up a Google Document for us to share ideas and resources, and we both hope to get things up and running in the not so distant future 🙂

    I had a BA in English, an MLS, and NYS teaching certification. I could help them so much if we only had some common planning time and less rigid scheduling.

    Maybe next year.


  7. This strikes so close to home on two levels.

    Our school is going to become part of a 1001 Flat Tales project in February with some other schools. The students and I have been reviewing 1001 Arabian Nights through audio and reading selections in computer class. I will share some sample stories from previous years so the students know what to expect. One thing that will probably help the seventh and eighth graders is to start collecting ideas for their own stories in January. We just started a blog this week, so we have a great place to collect the ideas.

    My own son is one of the seventh graders and I know he’ll struggle with what to write. By giving all the students time to brainstorm, the writing process might be a bit easier.

    I never really considered a brainstorming component, but your post sparked the idea and I’m going to run with it.

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