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Introducing research: the active classroom

posted: 3.8.13 by archived

In the past, in classrooms with only an instructor’s computer on a podium, I’ve unrolled my spiel about finding and evaluating sources: on the chalkboard listing the classic criteria of relevance, authority, bias, and currency; with my computer demonstrating strategies to find sources using research databases, online catalog, Amazon, Google and its alternatives; asking students to apply evaluation criteria to the hand-picked sources I offered up.

Determined to reduce my lecture time and with the luxury of laptops for students, I tried another approach this semester. With very little introduction, I challenged students to find the best source they could for a ten-page college-level research paper about how Frank Lloyd Wright remains an influence (or has become irrelevant) in contemporary house design (we’re in the “domestic spaces” section of my places-and-spaces themed comp class; each of my sections had a different housing-related research question). I asked them to post the link (or the information required to find the source, if the source was not available electronically) on a Google Doc I had set up, along with a note about the search strategy they used and their rationale for choosing that particular source. Because I’m using a course blog, it was an easy matter to set the Google Doc to be editable by anyone who had the link and then posting the Google Doc link on our course blog. After class, I locked access so that the document could be viewed but not edited.

I scheduled this activity for the last ten or fifteen minutes of class, so that I would have time to look over results before we talked about assessing sources. Predictably, Google was the search strategy of choice (I think it may even have been the only choice across all four of my sections), and nearly everyone chose websites. I added in a few links of my own, of mixed quality, to introduce issues of timeliness, relevance, and depth of source.

The next class I assigned students to groups of three or four and asked them to select nominees for “most useful” and “not so useful” sources and, as they were making those judgments, to list the criteria they were using. We then reconvened and discussed each group’s findings.  It was a simple exercise, but a vast improvement over my old lecture-version approach.

This activity has made me appreciate yet again our computer classrooms and how they enable more active learning experiences. Also, I’ve been considering what my other tech options would be for such a find-and-evaluate-sources activity. (I considered using Twitter, but abandoned it after a try-out in a faculty development workshop.) I’d be interested in hearing from readers what other ways, both high- and low-tech, that you’ve used to help students understand this part of the research process.

Categories: Holly Pappas
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