Research Tools

Many teachers are afraid to allow their students to use the Internet to write research papers. Teacher complaints that I have heard regarding this topic are: "Students plagiarize by cutting and pasting information from websites." "Students will not search beyond the first few sites they Google." "Students cannot distinguish an appropriate site for information from an advertisement."

 As a high school English teacher, I shared these same concerns; consequently, I discouraged my students from using the Internet for research. That was before I heard the complaints of professors and college librarians. The essence of their complaints was the chorus of a familiar tune: "What are they teaching them in high school?" They were baffled as to why college freshmen were clueless about how to use the Internet as a research tool.  Below are classroom-tested solutions to typical problems students and teachers face when students use the Internet for academic research purposes. 

Problem:  Students plagiarize by cutting and pasting information from websites.

Solution: Require that students use note cards when they research and instruct them to write no more than one or two sentences on each card. This will force students to read websites and select the most important information (which may require an additional lesson). Request that students submit their note cards as a part of their grade so that the note taking process can be monitored.  After students have accumulated their note cards, be sure to instruct them how to incorporate their notes into their writing through either paraphrasing or using a citation system such as MLA (Modern Language Association).  As a teacher, I have found it more effective to make note cards using a word processing system such as Microsoft Word than for students to use store-bought, index cards. One benefit for making note cards is that I can create blanks that require students to record important source information on their cards (such as page number, source name) that they tend to forget when not prompted.  

Problem: Students cannot distinguish an appropriate site for information from an inappropriate one such an advertisement. 

Solution: Familiarize students about what good sources of information are by introducing them to databases and directing them to specific websites they can use to research their paper. Databases are good sources for students because all of the information on a database are screened and packaged for research use. There are many databases available such as Info Trac, Academic Search Premier, and EBSCO, which are appropriate for high school students. For middle school students, good database choices are Info Trac Junior Edition and Middle Search Plus. Databases suitable for elementary students are EBSCO Primary Search, Kids Search, and even a database for students in the first through third grades named Searchasaurus.   Many databases can be accessed from public library websites to be used by students at home or in school free of charge using a number from their library cards.  In addition to databases, students could be directed to specific websites that you have examined and would recommend for them to use for a specific research topic. 

Problem: Students will not search for information beyond the first few sites they Google. 

Solution: Teach students how to create search statements that better direct and limit the number of web sites they encounter when using search engines such as Google or Yahoo.  This could be accomplished by teaching students Boolean Logic search operators such as AND, BUT, OR and nesting and truncation search techniques. 

Problem: As a teacher I am unfamiliar with which websites, databases, or search techniques such as the use of Boolean Logic search operators that would help my students use the Internet effectively when doing research. 

Solution: Consult with your school librarian or librarian at the nearest public library, preferably a young adult librarian if available. A degree in library science makes that individual an expert at conducting research and using reference materials including the Internet.  Most librarians are eager to help and some are available online through "ask a librarian" services available on many public library websites. For students to effectively use the Internet as a tool for research they must be given an opportunity to practice. Ideally, the best time and place for students to develop these skills are in the classroom.  If your school has a computer lab or a laptop cart available for classroom use, it is worth the investment to allow students to conduct some of their research using class time. The Internet has dramatically changed how research is conducted compared to when most teachers were high school and college students, including teachers as young as their late twenties. Most of the print sources that researchers relied on ten or fifteen years ago are now available online as well as a wealth of other information.  While I am not suggesting that students do not use any print sources when writing a research paper, it is important that as teachers we prepare students for this new world of research via the Internet.