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What’s So Hard about Research?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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We are told that the students that we teach are “digital natives.” This term implies that from the time they were born, technology has played such a large part in students’ lives that they know no other way. Also, it has been noted that digital natives have an aptitude for technology that is significantly different from the older generations (who have been dubbed “digital immigrants”); the joke goes that if you give a digital native and a digital immigrant a new digital camera, the native will be taking pictures before the immigrant has finished reading page two of the manual. The assumption is that this new generation is simply better than us at technology.

However, as we wrote about in another article for Scientific American, just because students are digital natives, does not mean that they have skills to figure out all technology, or to use technology in a purposeful way. We  noticed that, though these digital natives have the world of information at their fingertips, for some reason they are often unable to take basic problem-solving skills and apply them to simple online research. They had no problem figuring out how to work the newest update to Facebook, but when asked to find out any information that required the smallest amount of critical thinking, students were hampered. The best example we have of this is when we asked students what the most important causes of the Revolutionary War were—we heard a student ask Siri: “What are the most important causes of the Revolutionary War?” When Siri did not know the answer, the student said, “I don’t know, I can’t find it.”

Students can find out basic names, dates, and facts through online research. If we ask them what year the Declaration of Independence was signed, they will Google that exact question, and most of the time, produce the right answer. But when asked to research a question that does not have one “right” answer, the room quickly dissolves into a chorus of “I don’t get it” and “I need help” and “I can’t find it.”

In this article we will attempt to answer this question that we have posed and discussed often here at Scientific American:

What about online research is challenging to students?

Through observation of our students, we have come up with five hypotheses as to why this may be:

· Students today are accustomed to instant gratification, and therefore can be overwhelmed by tasks that require time-consuming research.

There are very few things in life that our students have to wait for today. Information they need to know is posted instantly online, they can connect with their friends through social media without needing to wait for school the next day, and Googling a question will give them a quick answer to any fact they want to know. However, research isn’t actually easy–in fact, it’s quite deceptive how the Internet makes it seem easy. In reality, research requires students to read, interpret, and analyze new information, reshape their research question, and start again. This kind of sustained focus on a challenging task is very hard for most students to hold. Here is an exchange that exemplifies this facet of the issue:

Student: “I can’t find anything about the buildings of the South during Reconstruction.”

Teacher: “Ok, show me what sites you’ve used.”

(Student pulls up an article from the History Channel)

Teacher: “Well, I see a good starting place right here. It says that much of the South was destroyed during Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War. Why don’t you find out what areas his march destroyed, and then look up those cities to see what kind of destruction they faced?”

Student: (while pouting and walking back to his desk) “But that’s going to take forever!”

What the student meant to tell the teacher was, “  I can’t find anything easily about the buildings of the South during Reconstruction.” It isn’t true that, as a whole, these students have a difficult time with sustained attention. They do not stop researching and begin another activity because they got distracted;  in our experience, they are more likely to spin themselves in circles making no progress for an entire class period because they do not want to go through a cognitive process that will take “forever.”

· When researching online, students unsuccessfully scan pages of text as opposed to reading those pages of text for comprehension. Therefore, they cannot tell whether or not the source they are looking at is applicable to their research question.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are many techniques one can use to quickly locate information on an Internet page. For example, CTRL + F will bring up a “find” tool that will allow you to highlight all instances of a particular word or phrase on a page. Students use this tool quite frequently; when one student needed to find out what President Polk thought about U.S. expansion, she found an article about expansion, hit CTRL + F, and searched for “Polk.” All of the results on the page linked Polk to legislation that was passed, and land that was acquired during his term, but nowhere on the page could she find a sentence that said that President Polk thought that expansion was ________. Instead of reading the article and using inductive reasoning to figure out that President Polk was probably in favor of expansion, she told us that she couldn’t find the answer.

There are a few factors that we believe are at work here. It is faster to CRTL + F a keyword than it is to read an article, so perhaps some of hypothesis number 1 is at work, here: students want to take the fastest and quickest route. However, there are also issues of monitoring reading comprehension. The problem is not necessarily that the language of the article was too sophisticated for this student; the real problem is that she never stopped to ask herself the question, “Do I understand what this means?”

· When students are given a research prompt by their teacher, students often do not care enough about the topic to really persevere. Therefore, when they find that answers are not immediately apparent, they do not have the motivation necessary to fuel their sustained attention.

We have noticed that when students look up information we tell them to look up, they ask us many questions during a class period. Most are interested in making sure they have the “right answers”, and checking that their assignment is “long enough”. When students conduct research about a topic they have interest in, they have a much stronger sense of purpose. While some do still ask us questions in which they seek our approval, it is more often for approval about their thoughts pertaining to content than for approval of the length of their assignment. They seem to take more ownership of the material, and think about it on a higher level.

· Because there is so much information online, and not all of it is credible, Internet search results can be overwhelming to students. Therefore, the amount of information paralyzes rather than empowers students.

It seems counter-intuitive that a student could pull up 500,000 search results and still tell her teacher that she can’t find anything (just like flipping through a billion channels on cable, but finding that nothing is on)– but students do often feel that way. The best way to illustrate this is to describe the difference in student responses when they were researching using a search engine other than Google.

Dulcinea Media came up with a search engine designed for students called SweetSearch. It works similarly to Google, in that there is a database of files that one can search by typing keywords into a search bar. What is different about SweetSearch is that the database only contains 30,000 documents, all of which have been previously vetted for academic reliability. For a particular project, the only Internet search engine we allowed the students to use was SweetSearch.

When they researched in class using Google, five to ten students per class period would say they were unable to find what they needed. When they researched in class using SweetSearch, there was not a single student who told us that they could not find any information about their topic. So whether students liked using SweetSearch or not, it is clear that it helped them be more successful when conducting their research.

· Developmentally, middle school students are just beginning to be able to think critically, but they seem programmed to look for “the” answer, and do not have a strong sense of self-efficacy when presented with open-ended questions.

Some of our unit assessments are structured in the style of Project Based Learning where students can present their findings in any form, as long as it answers the inquiry-based prompt. Many students were very uncomfortable with the idea that they would be making the decision about what form their project will take, and continually tried to get a stamp of approval. Questions like, “Do you think it will be okay if we make a movie?” Or “Will it be good if we make a poster?” were all answered with some version of, “It doesn’t matter what we think. What do you think?” We could see the frustration in their faces when they did not get the answer they wanted, but our goal here was for them to realize that their opinions were the ones that mattered.

Students also asked for their teachers’ opinions about their research findings. Students felt unsure about their authority, and wanted us to tell them that they had found the right answer. It takes the responsibility off of them; however, we wanted the students to take ownership of the information, and unless they were historically inaccurate in their findings (which almost never happened), we answered all of these questions in the same manner as the questions about their projects: “It doesn’t matter what I think. What do you think?”

So what?

Now that we know students struggle with research, now that we’ve discussed why that might be so, what steps can we take to help improve the situation? The next frontier for us will be to design curricular interventions that help students overcome some of these challenges they face, and to provide opportunities–like our Project Based Learning research unit assessment– for students to research in more productive ways. SweetSearch and critical thinking are just the beginning. This question of research will only be more acute in the coming years as information in this age is becoming even more accessible and available to students. It is our job as their teachers to help students understand and be able to use this information that they discover.

About the Author:

Jody Passanisi is in her tenth year teaching and currently teaches eighth grade U.S. at an independent school in the Los Angeles area. She has a degree in psychology from San Francisco State University, an M.A. in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union, and an M.S. in education from Mount St. Mary's College. She has been actively involved in the DeLeT program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, both as a fellow and a mentor teacher.

Shara Peters is in her fourth year teaching and currently teaches middle school at an independent school in the Orange County, CA area. She has a degree in Jewish studies from California State University, Long Beach, was a fellow in the DeLeT program at Hebrew Union College where she received her teaching credential, and earned an M.A.T from American Jewish University. Jody and Shara’s writing has been featured on Scientific American, Education Week Teacher, and MiddleWeb. Follow on Twitter @21centuryteachr.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. jmhannon 8:44 pm 06/19/2013

    I am 68 years old and I get a little upset with comments that think the older generations are not up to speed with technology. I am a retired engineer and I am one of the people that brought you this technology.

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  2. 2. 21centuryteachr 10:43 am 06/20/2013

    @jmhannon– We absolutely agree. As we said, “the assumption is that this new generation is simply better than us at technology.” We hope that we’ve shown this isn’t necessarily the case. And thank you for all of your contributions.

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  3. 3. HertfordshireChris 1:11 pm 06/23/2013

    Humans evolved in a world where they had incomplete knowledge and unpredictable things would happen. One needed an imaginative mind to survive. Computers were designed to handle well defined and predicable problems which (initially at least) concentrated on problems which humans were inherently bad at. It is clear that the human brain and the computer were designed to handle very different kinds of problem – and complement each other. To the vast majority of humans the computer is a black box which does predefined tasks with no questions asked about how it does it. And to be honest many of these tasks are extremely useful so the technology has been unbelievably successful.

    At least some of the problems described in the article are because the human brain is flexible enough to adapt to working with computers, especially as the basics of computing has been taught in schools for virtually a generation. Many everyday computers systems – for instance word processors – provide vast numbers of predefined options. If you want to do something different you have to select the appropriate predefined option(s) rather than use your imagination – which you would have had to do in the days of pen and paper. The overall effect is that, at least in the presence of modern technology, we start to think like a computer – “Predefinition good – uncontrolled imagination bad”. As long as what you want to do is compatible with the electronic “Big Brother” you will find an almost unlimited number of exciting things to do with minimal effort. If you, or your students, start thinking imaginatively outside the box you will find it hard work.

    These comments are based on direct experience of seeing changes over a period on nearly 50 years. About 45 years ago (when computers were still comparatively new) I started to work (as a computer scientist) on an alternative approach that could have lead to an “white box” information processor designed to work in a way that the users could understand and control. If people knew nothing about computers it was comparatively easy to explain how it worked. The difficulty was that the more someone knew about computers the more they tried to use the system as if it was a conventional computer, as they took it for granted that you needed to predefine tasks in advance! Now it is almost impossible to find anyone under retirement age who hasn’t taken the computer way of thinking for granted.

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  4. 4. katana 4:07 pm 06/24/2013

    I am quite possibly more technologically literate than many of my students. The observation that they simply stop looking if they don’t find an immediate, quick answer seems to match a lot of my observations; my students struggle with how to upload an attachment via Blackboard, and apparently did not scroll down far enough on the page to find (and click on) a Browse button.
    They are not intellectually lazy. They are curious, but they do prefer a simple “right” answer that enables them to quickly process the information. I’m not sure how thoroughly that information is integrated into their world view. Some of my students are so detail-oriented (what size font should I use?) that they utterly miss the point and intent of the assignment. This affects their ability to build reasoning skills, and I think that standardized testing (multiple choice) reinforces this behavior as well. However, this was an interesting exploration, and I look forward to trying “sweet search” for myself!

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