Engaging Student Research Without Grand Projects

Recently, I have found it tricky to create engaging student research projects.

When I taught 3rd & 4th grade, I 💜LOVED💜 it! I would build these incredible cross curricular units around research skills. We would:

  • use multi-media research tools like BrainPOP Jr, WebQuests, and informational books.
  • engage in multi modal learning strategies like yoga, visual literacy, music, hot seat, writing, 20 questions, maitre d, readers’ theater, etc.
  • create multi-media projects like paintings, podcasts, green screen videos, plays, map building, etc.

It was fun 🥳!

My students were completely engaged and I am proud to say that everyone was engaged. My students would come in early, skip recess, and stay after school to learn.

Research projects like these were some of the most memorable teaching I have ever done and planned for.

Avoid this mistake

Engaging student research doesn’t have to be grand projects. Especially in the library media center. I have a bad habit of grossly over-estimating my capabilities.

Trying to replicate these massive units in a 45 minute class period once per week was folly. It didn’t take long until I realized that to do so would take the entire school year.

As much as I love engaging research units, spending an entire school year teaching only research is not my cup of tea. And quite frankly, I’m sure my students would have revolted. The trick is balance, and being able to:

  • teach a specific research skill.
  • make meaningful connections to grade level content.
  • incorporate student choice.
  • use current pedagogy.
  • use alternative resources

While I still have a way to go, I have found these five things incredibly helpful!

Focus on One Skill

I worked with a really great PE teacher who was great about reminding our specialist group to focus on just one skill. This is especially true when teaching specific research skills as a specials area teacher.

I recently taught grade 5 how to use Augmented & Virtual Reality to research. One day was focused on learning the difference between augmented and virtual reality. We then came up with examples of each and ways to use both for learning.

The next day, I showed them how to research with VR. This day I also showed them what to do. The following day, they chose a topic from a list I created. They used an ARVR research note taking sheet to focus their learning. Then they shared out what they learned from their virtual experience.

Each lesson was focused on just one aspect of the research process using augmented and virtual reality.

I do the same when teaching students how to cite sources, identify sources, create loops when coding. Focusing on one skill is engaging for student research when you only have 20, 30, or 45 minutes to teach the skill.

Connect to Grade Level Content

As often as possible, I connect what I teach to what the kiddos are learning, have learned, or will be learning. This is especially true when it comes to research.

The research unit is typically taught early in the school year. That means, the kiddos get a glimpse into what they will be learning throughout the school year.

For example, grade 5 can research the Antarctic, jelly fish, colonial life, space. All of these are topics they will cover at some point in the school year. Even within those constraints, there is a lot of wiggle room.

I have tried to perfectly match up my research unit with a specific topic being taught in the classroom. They are typically done learning about it before I even have the chance to get to the meat of the research process. Then the kids are bored because they already learned about it and are so ready to move on.

Incorporate Student Choice

I am a HUGE fan of student choice. I strongly believe in the correlation between choice and engagement.

Kiddos have either a love or hate relationship with research. They either love it or hate it. Engaging student research that includes choice makes it more palatable to those kiddos who loathe it, is giving them choice.

If students are researching a historical figure, let them choose one. Databases like Scholastic, PebbleGo, and BrainPOP provide a number of choices within each topic.

For example, if students are learning about ecosystems or habitats, BrainPOP Jr has a few habitats for them to research. The same is true if students are researching a historical figure. PebbleGo has a plethora of biographies available. And if students are learning about a historical event or how the earth is formed, Scholastic has excellent articles and videos available.

Choice is key. And it is fairly easy to provide even when we are working within the confines of particular subjects.

Use Current Pedagogy

One of the cool things about being a Library Media Specialist is having the ability to try current pedagogy. We can take risks and try things out in a way that may not be as easy for a classroom teacher.

When it comes to research skills, not all kids find it exciting. They’d much rather code, engineer, do some ARVR, design, or even type. To make it more palatable, current pedagogies are super helpful.

One pedagogy, personalized learning, is helpful. This can look student choice, learning paths, or self-paced learning. Personalized learning is a great way to meet students’ strengths, needs, and interests.

Another pedagogy, that I thought I would never use, is gamification. I am not a huge fan of competition, however I acknowledge that some students thrive on it.

Two of my favorite tools for gamification are Classcraft and Symbaloo Learning Paths. Each turns learning into a game in a slightly different way.

You can also gamify learning with Google Slides or Classroom and Seesaw. One easy way to make it feel like a game in platforms like these, is to insert quizzes and provide achievement badges or digital stickers.

Use Alternative Resources

Research can be done with a wide range of resources. One of my favorite things to do is teach my students about different types of resources.

Instead of relying solely on texts or databases, branch out to alternative resources for research.

If you can schedule it at little to no cost, experts are a great resource. My kindergarteners just had the opportunity to Skype with a doctor to research this type of community helper.

One of my favorite alternative resources as a classroom teacher was experiential lessons. For example, helping students understand adaptations by having them learn to adapt without thumbs. Another favorite is having them understand different occupations like assembly line employee and having them wrap unifex cubes to simulate Hershey Kisses on the assembly line.

Museums and field trips are always great, too. But sometimes the destination is too far, too expensive, or too much of a fringe topic. When that happens, virtual field trips are great.

This is where Augmented and Virtual Reality are incredibly handy. They also teach children a unique way to use these tools.

One of the things that I get excited about is blending all of these things. Especially when teaching research skills.

For example, one skill I teach students is how to use MyBib to cite sources. They choose a regional event and the resource (including a virtual field trip) to demonstrate they can do it. This is done during a gamified learning path within Classcraft. After uploading an image of their citation, they receive a digital sticker.

Engaging students in research doesn’t require the integration of all 5 strategies. It can be any of them skillfully applied. Choose one and dive in!

What are some ways that you engage students in research skills? What is something that you struggle with teaching research? Drop it in the comments below!