My freshmen classes are doing a research project. I decided to do this for several reasons:
1. They have no idea how to do a research project.
Seriously. They wouldn't know research if it bit them on the toe. Inevitably, in a future class, they will have to do a research project, and they will be lost. It might as well happen with me; I'm well-acquainted with their lousy work ethic, their constant need for hand-holding, their inability to find any sentence that is not clearly marked LOOK! HERE IS THE ANSWER!, and the never-ending litany of complaints:
This is too hard!
I don't get it! <-- my personal teeth-grinder
Why are we doing this?
I can't find the answer!
Also, I have become very good at answering back with complaints of my own:
You haven't even opened the book!
You've obviously decided to let me do your work for you!
You didn't bring anything to write with?!?!?!?!?
You're just being lazy!
2. They have no idea what "taking notes" means.
No, they think "taking notes" means "copy word-for-word from the book." We have been working on this for a week now. I have told them constantly, "QUALITY, not quantity." I have given numerous examples and had whole-class practice and talked about abbreviations and shown them my own notes and still! Today we went to the library and over half of them copied every stinking word from the book.
3. They need to know that there are resources besides Wikipedia.
Look, I love Wikipedia. I use it when I've watched a movie biography or read about some historic event. But I don't use it in my papers. And even if I did, I wouldn't use it EXCLUSIVELY.
With older students, I can impress upon them the importance of finding reliable sources, but for my freshmen, reliability seems to be arbitrary; for example, they will believe a known troublemaker--someone who's been caught in lies by both adults and teenagers--who tells them that their car is on fire, or that the pizza is made of worms, or that 75% of the school population tested positive for HIV, but they will not believe me when I tell them that every single question on the study guide will be on the test, in the same order, with the same wording AND the same answers.
4. It gives them a chance to claim ownership of their knowledge.
This is a research-based method. According to certain studies, if a student has to find the information himself, that is, to "teach" himself the material, he will be more engaged and therefore more interested in the material.
Well. That's the theory, anyway.
It's hit-and-miss, really. It just depends on the student. But--and this is what convinces me--so often I find myself accommodating my lowest learners to the detriment of the rest of the class. It's important for me to do that, yes, but it's also important to address my average and gifted learners.
This is an opportunity to empower every group, regardless of ability. Of course I'm going to have to help my lower learners, OF COURSE I am. But it gives them an opportunity to work on their own a little too, and they get an idea of what they're capable of (hint: SOOOO much more than they thought).
5. It provides real-world experience.
So often, in the corporate world, employees have to sift through many, many documents to find tiny bits of information. Through this project, my students are (slooooooooowly) learning how to skim through dozens of pages in order to find specific information. They are learning to compare sources to find the best or most complete answer. They are learning that, sometimes, the answer is not written in huge letters with giant flashing arrows pointing to it.
And they are learning to summarize. Dear GOD, when I saw the three-page summaries (of one page stories, even) I used to get, I would almost burst into tears right in front of the chalkboard. But with a little patience on my part, and lots (and lots and lots) of practice on their part, I am finally getting concise, accurate paragraphs that give me what I need and no more.
6. They are becoming better readers.
Well, it's a reading class, after all.
One characteristic of a good reader--and if I've told them once I've told them a thousand million billion times--is that he READS FOR A PURPOSE. With this project, I've given them the purpose, and I've told them to find only the information I've asked for, and then CLOSE THE BOOK.
Yeah, maybe it doesn't exactly engender a love for reading, or encourage them to explore further, but that is not my objective with this particular project. At the moment, I just want them to know what it means to know what they're looking for, find it, and STOP. Sometimes the STOP is the hardest lesson to learn.
7. They get editing practice.
Because they need it. Oh, boy, do they need it.
8. I think it's fun.
Well, I do. And, I'll tell you what, some of them do too. I've had some of my most apathetic, least excitable students tell me they are really enjoying this research stuff.
And that right there makes the whole thing worthwhile.