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June 2, 2011 / Sarah Ludwig

Take an educated guess

I recently squeeeeezed a 3-day unit on research into the last couple of weeks of school. The fifth graders do their first research project in the spring and too late, we realized they weren’t getting much training on how to do research online. So I took the lesson that I have been doing with 6th and 9th graders and simplified it a bit more. I broke up the unit into three chunks: finding information, evaluating information, and then conducting some real searches. The end product was a shared, annotated bibliography that the students used to highlight the two best resources that they could find about their topic. They had to think of it in terms of “defend this resource to me.”

Now, before I really get into this, I should say that a) we didn’t have enough time to really do this project justice; and b) if I had had more time, I would have spent it working one-on-one with each student on really discussing their search strategies and their “defense” of the sites they selected. But at the very least, the culmination of their work serves as a pretty honest picture of how fifth graders find and use information online.

Here is the bibliography.

A few highlights and observations:

Of the forty-odd students in fifth grade, many students really picked up on the language that I was using.

I chose this web site because all the facts were true because I found the facts in other articles.

It was by the musum of Science and Industry.  Which is an institution and should be very reliable.

Because it gives important information about the early Canadian people, and it was recently added ,and the information is accurate.

I chose it because it’s reliable because it was published in 2011

At the very least, these students were thinking about some of the concepts that I had highlighted and were trying to incorporate them into their analysis. Others chose resources because they were “interesting” or had “lots of information.”

It’s fascinating for me to see how these students think. Most of them want websites where they can find a lot of information very quickly (OK, that’s what we all want). But when it comes to doing research, that is their number-one criteria.

One interesting conversation that arose was about accuracy. How do you know that the facts you’re reading are correct? Take an educated guess, one student said. Use your background information to decide, said another. But what if you don’t have any background information? Then they started to figure it out: you have to check against other sources. Which means the more sources you look at, the better picture you have of your topic.

Something else that came up a lot was difficulty in searching. When we are working with students who are used to typing a research question into Google and then using Yahoo Answers to find their information, they are not accustomed to identifying keywords. And even when they can find keywords, they are very quick to give up when those keywords yield no results. For example, the students looking up information on different aspects of Scotland and Canada would type in “scottish climate” in WorldBook online, find nothing, and then move onto the next resource. So I needed to really help them with the concept of broadening – if “scottish climate” doesn’t work, then try “scotland” and scan the page. Again, this is something students are unused to doing. They don’t want to read the source, they want to find the exact source that gives them their answer without any extraneous information getting in the way.

This applies to juniors as much as it does 5th graders, by the way…BUT, if we can intervene now, perhaps we can help our students search for information in smart, efficient ways, so much so that they’re experts by the time they hit high school.

In the end, I’m happy with the results of this exercise. At the most, it shows me that our students are capable of picking up on the different components of web searching. And no less importantly, it gives me a barometer of what we should be covering right from the get-go with these students. They are so bright and so ready to learn, but searching is such a learned habit, even at this age. There’s nothing wrong with finding information quickly; this is something I tell my students all the time. When you’re looking for quick information on something that’s interesting to you? Just find the most information you can in the shortest amount of time. (Basically, go to Wikipedia.) But if you’re doing research for a paper, on a topic that your teacher knows something about, you have to do more. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson here: having the skills to determine the best search strategy to employ at a given time. I’ll have to think about that for next year.

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