Closer Readings Commentary

How to Improve Student Research Skills

Although today’s students are often said to be “digital natives” because of their early familiarity with the Internet, recent studies by the Pew Research Center and Turnitin show that, measured by college and career standards, their research skills are at best, rudimentary, and at worst, “shallow” and seriously flawed.

Evaluating student research

In a recent Turnitin White Paper “What’s Wrong with Wikipedia: Evaluating the Sources Used by Students,” the authors observe that information on the Internet is so easy to find that today’s students have gotten into the habit of valuing “immediacy” over “quality” in their online searches. The paper also notes that students have a “strong appetite” for “crowd-sourcing” sites in their research.

In a related White Paper, “The Sources of Student Writing–Secondary Education,” the authors document how student-favored sites have “weak academic validity.” The reason for this, in part, is that 18% of content comes from paper mills and “cheat sites.” Moreover, Turnitin also found that most Internet “information” sites simply repeat what is found in a few major sites such as Wikipedia.

“The wealth of information on the Internet,” the authors conclude, is “making the process of searching, discovering, processing, and communicating information a lost art.” Teachers are urged to make explicit what a good research project entails and give students practical exercises in the process as traditionally understood

What the Core demands

The Common Core English Language Arts Anchor Standards for Writing emphasize that the acquisition of a set of research skills are required for success in college and career. Student need to be able to:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7 “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.”
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.8 “Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.”
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.9 “Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.”

How EDSITEment can help

To help teachers and their students develop better research skills, EDSITEment has put together a short guide: “Evaluating Online Resources,” which offers six common-sense criteria for assessing the quality of information on the Web: authorship, publishing body, point of view or bias, authority, accuracy, and currency.As this feature makes clear, over the past 15 years, EDSITEment has been engaged in academic peer review of websites for their educational value to K–12. This rigorous screening process, modeled on that of our parent agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, ensures high-quality, usable content for all EDSITEment websites. EDSITEment has collected hundreds vetted websites covering humanities subjects—and more—commonly taught in K–12. These sites can be sorted by academic subject, arranged alphabetically or by date. Taken together the collection offers teachers free, high-quality, reliable, user-friendly digital destinations for student practice with the research process.

Exemplary sites

Let’s consider two of the most important sites on our list for teaching U.S. history, politics, and culture. (We’ll consider literature separately in a forthcoming blog posting.)

  • The NEH-supported U.S. State and Territorial Online Encyclopedias is a collection of free, authoritative sources for Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia, and the territories of Puerto Rico and Guam. The entries on history, politics, geography, religion, and culture are written by scholars in an accessible manner and updated regularly to ensure that they are accurate. The editors are continually adding new entries, photographs, audio, and maps. (EDSITEment staff also regularly mine these sites for the site's daily calendar, Facebook, and Twitter postings.)
  • Chronicling America, another NEH-supported project, gives students access to six million digitalized pages of America’s historic newspapers during the period 1836–1922. Through this site, students can immerse themselves in primary source informational texts in a variety of forms. As our Library of Congress colleague, Stephen Wesson, put it recently on the LOC blog: “In a typical paper from 1900, you might find factual reporting, fire-breathing editorials, biographical profiles, literary nonfiction, weather reports, box scores, charts, graphs, maps, cartoons, and a poem about current events—maybe even all on the same page!” By using the Chronicling America mini-site on EDSITEment, you and your students can access several video tutorials and other tools that will help them enter this rich digital archive.

With resources like these, students and teachers will be assured of reliable, accurate, and up-to-date information on the multitude of topics relating to American history, politics, culture, and law. They will also be exposed to models of “evidence-based” analysis and reflection and will be well on their way to learning how to acquire college and career-ready research skills.