Strategies for purpose and structure to student research

Posted on 03.06.2013


Research, true research, is really tough for so many reasons.  Often, students complain how confusing, hard and annoying the process is.  Many students are ok at looking up a discrete piece of information; like say, a date or an event and finding salient facts about it (historical ID anyone?).

But that’s not research.

Doing research is about using information in multiple sources to take you to new information which then takes you to new pieces of information.  With the hope that ultimately you might find a nuget of truth, something new and interesting to bring into the world.  There is rarely a silver bullet answer when it comes to researching a question or topic.

This is so hard.  Research is painfully hard.  It’s like trying to navigate an unknown path by reading patterns in the dirt and looking for clues on the bark of trees.

To help students with this I have taken to two tactics.

TACTIC 1: setting up their research for success so it has purpose and a structure.  They first create a  a Plan of Investigation. It has three parts:

  1. Topic:  Question to guide your research about what they want to know.  In african American history class, they have to figure out how one theme of slavery connects with  the African slave trade, current day examples and the 6 social institutions.
  2. Scope:  What specific topics and information you will be finding details about.   These are specific areas of information that students want to know more about to help answer their topic question.
  3. Method:  How students will and their work-group plan on finding this information?

TACTIC 2: creating purpose and structure to the research.  I give students a jumping off point – a source that is full of useful pieces of information that can lead them in new directions.

But that’s not enough.

The students I work with need activities while they read; they need to feel like the are looking things up and then looking more things up.  What I’ve started to do is have them draw diagrams or flow charts of their research: circles are sources and facts – lines are connections to new sources and facts.

I am also trying a new tactic: they will fill out a research card (it fits on half a page of copy paper) every time the find something new.  I’ll let you know how this new strategy works.


Fill out one of these every time you find something you think might be useful when you are doing research (a good researcher will have MANY research cards!)

Title of Source:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Scope Topic(s) of source:                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

MLA CITATION:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            



Quote, Facts, Information From Source: 









How well does info relate to topic Q?How useful do you think will this be?

What other things does this make me think about?                                                                                                                                                                




What should I look up next from this?                                                                                                                                                                                              

Posted in: Methods, projects