For me, the third quarter of the school year is my Research Season. Teachers of course assign small research projects all year long, and I work with them on most of those, but this time of year is when we do the big US History Research Paper. This is the biggest research project that many of our students do in their high school careers, and it is also the project where I get to collaborate the most with the teachers who teach it. Each year, we take a look at the results from the previous year, and what we’ve learned in professional development opportunities that year, and make any changes to the process that we think will help our students learn the process of research better. We’ve been tweaking this project together, year by year, for 7 years now, and here are 2 recent changes that we feel have made a positive impact.
The Synthesis Matrix
For a several years we tried to incorporate an annotated bibliography into the project, but the students never quite understood it or it’s place in the research process. Students would find things that had something to do with their topic in order to write the annotated bibliography entry, but when they started actually writing the paper, they would often need to find all new sources because they weren’t paying attention to how the sources answered their research questions. Then, in 2021 at the AASL conference, I attended a session that talked about using a synthesis matrix as an alternative to an annotated bibliography. We added it to the project last winter with great success.
In a synthesis matrix, you place the research questions or themes in the top row, and then add each source down the side of the grid. For each source, you answer how it fits each of the research questions/themes across the top, leaving a blank if that source doesn’t fit one of your questions. Our students create their synthesis matrix as soon as we start looking for sources and fill it in as we go. If a source is blank across all of their questions, they discard that source and keep looking. It helps students see right away that just because a source talks about the Civil War doesn’t mean that it’s useful for their specific research. It also helps them see which of their research questions aren’t addressed with the sources they have so that they can tailor their future searches for those questions. As a personal bonus, I end up with fewer freaked-out students who suddenly don’t have enough sources the day before the paper is due.
Free Research Goals + 1 Minute of Knowledge
Both of the following tips came from the AISL community in some way, and they go hand-in-hand. Shoutout to Erinn Salge, who got this tip from Dave Wee and then shared it on the list-serv – every time you have students do free research in class, set a goal for students to reach by the end of class. You could do this as an exit ticket, or like Erinn you could work with teachers to add it into the classroom participation for the day. I usually just have students tell me something they found. For example, in 2 recent biography projects, students had to tell me an interesting fact about their chosen person at the end of class.
For the US history research paper, I’ve combined this with the 1 minute goal from William Badke’s Research Strategies, a book that several of us read together last spring in a discussion group (it’s worth a read, though none of us agreed with everything Badke says). Badke points out that you need a working knowledge of a topic before you can dive in to full-on research, and a rule of thumb for what constitutes working knowledge is to be able to talk about a topic for 1 minute without repeating yourself. Today, we are exploring possible topics for the US history paper, and students are reading reference sources about whatever topic/s they’re interested in. The students’ daily goal is to be able to talk about their potential topic to a partner for 1 minute; if they run out of things to say, they know that they need to read a bit more. This is all taking place before students even turn in their topic proposals, so by the time we start looking for primary sources, students should have a decent working knowledge of their topic.