Slow thinking and research–bridging the gap

Are students “satisficing”?

We all, librarians and teachers alike, struggle with how to help our students make more intentional choices when doing research.  (I would argue parents also struggle with this).   In their presentation at ALA13:  “Friction: Teaching Slow Thinking and Intentionality in Online Research,” research gurus Debbie Abilock and Tasha Bergson-Michelson tackled the challenges we face.

Abilock spoke about interjecting ‘points of friction’ into the research process in order to help students slow down and think more carefully, in order to build their own habits of mind.  Students, she commented, too often are “satisficing“–satisfying themselves with what will suffice rather than what satisfies their curiosity.  (Of course this can be traced to all sorts of things–like lack of engagement with their subject matter to lack of time, etc.)  But nonetheless, it prevents them developing powerful habits around research.

abilockWhat Abilock and Bergson-Michelson both did so powerfully during the workshop was asked the packed audience to drill down deeply into the problems that we see students having.   If students aren’t using peer reviewed journals at the college level, what does that look like?  Why aren’t they?  What are the barriers? What would we like to see students do instead?  Why? Asking ourselves those kinds of questions helps us better support students and understand our own biases and intentions.

Abilock and Bergson asked the participants to get into groups and brainstorm an area of research where we particularly wanted students to SLOW down.  Then we were to be very specific and describe the kinds of BEHAVIORS we see in students related to this area.  That became a very powerful discussion and the notes from each group are here, and well worth a careful read. Groups picked a variety of things, from refining a topic, to reading for information.

What students struggle with (a collaborative brainstorm)

  • Students not being able to articulate their topic
  • Students not understanding the assignment prompt
  • Students not understanding indexing and tagging (This becomes more important as they reach college, too).
  • “Problems of specialization”–Not understanding how to make a topic smaller or broader
  • Getting students to slow down because sometimes teachers want them to hurry up–sometimes the focus is on the product over the process.
  • Unwillingness to stop and modify thesiss
  • Lack of tenacity
  • Changing their topic instead of reframing their search if they aren’t finding relevant information (in real life, you can’t always “change your topic.”)
  • Clicking on sponsored sites and not realizing it
  • Difficulty in articulating research questions
  • Sometimes not seeing the value in multiple points of view or a variety of sources
  • Not realizing that databases can also have bias and they have to understand what the original source of document is
  • Not being able to identify an academic field’s key databases and sources
  • Lack of confidence, embarrassment in admitting what they “don’t know.”
  • Note taking issues prompt cutting and pasting
  • Loss of focus on original purpose–find “keywords” but not relevant
  • Prompts aren’t engaging to students to begin with; not student driven
  • Missing context–students don’t know enough about subject to know key players, know what they don’t know

As I examined each group’s points of concerns, I realized how universal the problems that students encounter are.  How can we partner together, educators, librarians, and parents to help students with these issues?  Participants and the speakers suggested:

flickr photo by (nc)Dave
  • Ask students to envision the perfect article BEFORE they begin to do their research. What words would it have in it?
  • Ask them to sort their questions into “Googleable” and Non-Googleable (re:
  • Ask students to explain their assignment back to you while the teacher is still in the room so you BOTH can check for understanding.
  • Ask students to annotate a search results page (not a website but their list of results).
  • Promote slow reading.  Read aloud to students and ask a student to raise their hand and comment after every sentence.  Promotes slowing down the reading.
  • Have students use a tool like ThingLink to annotate a website they are planning to use.
  • Tap into their visual/nonverbal abilities by having students sketch as part of the note-taking.
  • Work collaboratively with students to develop “rules of thumb” for research
  • Model your research strategies aloud–make your own thinking visible
  • Ask students — what will you look for tomorrow? to promote intentional thinking
  • Design research activities/prompts that are engaging to students and allow choice

Obviously all of these ideas are just the beginnings of a strategic approach to scaffolding students in their research efforts.   The real value in this exercise was drilling down into the questions:


What do these student behaviors LOOK like?  What do we hope they can look like in the future?

As Abilock commented:

 Searching can be a spot of intense creativity.

Thinking of search as an act of creation, not just a means to an end, but something that can be crafted, is all about intentionality of our purposes as educators, too.   How CAN we help our students become “intensely creative” researchers?


Postscript:  For following up on the notion of friction in search, check out a similar Abilock presentation here:

One thought on “Slow thinking and research–bridging the gap

  1. As an adult ESL educator and life-long “slow thinker,” I really appreciate the push toward a more creative and contemplative process in a world that is constantly programming us to speed up.

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