Over September and October I will be publishing weekly articles on effective teaching strategies for trainee teachers and NQTs, offering brief (and, I hope, useful and practical!) examples of lessons, ideas, and resources that saved my bacon on more than one occasion!
Independent research tasks are ideal for sixth form students – particularly those undertaking larger coursework projects, IB Extended Essays, or the EPQ. Get it right and this kind of activity can be deeply empowering for your class, stimulating their intellectual curiosity and allowing them to practice vital skills of fact-finding and focused analysis. Tasks like this also offers teachers a rather nice Brucie Bonus in the form of one or two hands-off lessons during which one can chip away at that mountain of marking on one’s desk! Research, though, is a skill that must be practised like any other, and if students aren’t properly prepared before being thrust into the academic wilderness then the activity can be an unfortunate waste of time for everyone involved.
The trick to guaranteeing that independent research is meaningful and worthwhile lies in equipping your students with the tools that they need to succeed: step-by-step instructions, clear aims and a sense of purpose, and guidance as to what they should be looking for.
Enter… the Research Review. It looks a bit like this:
The Research Review is based on the kinds of tasks I was asked to complete as an MA student. Even though this particular example is geared towards an English Literature class, the concept can be easily tweaked for a whole range of different subjects. The skills being developed here are as appropriate to the Government and Politics student comparing historical sources as they are to the Biology student exploring contemporary research on cellular mitosis. Whatever the topic, the principle remains the same: provide your students with a clear, simple process, and before long this kind of task will be second nature to them.
- EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) research
- Researching and planning IB Extended Essays / A Level Coursework
- Stretching and challenging more able students
- Linking ideas and topics
- Leading into presentation / peer teaching activities
Preparation time: 10mins (or less, if you adapt the version above!)
Activity Length: 1-2 hours, depending on a) your class’ ability and confidence with this kind of task, and b) the challenge and length of the materials which they may discover.
Requires: One guidance sheet (see above), tailored to your requirements.
I like to introduce this task to my students by encouraging them to see this task as an opportunity to stretch themselves, a chance to impress me, and as a bit of a privilege: “I’ve got a special challenge for you all today (and it is a challenge!). It’s a slightly shorter version of a task normally given to university students, but given how well you’ve handled our topic so far I think that you could all do really well at this…!”
After that, the teacher should dedicate time to reading through the instructions on the sheet with the class, answering any questions along the way. Make clear that you aren’t simply letting them disappear unaided for two lessons (because you aren’t!): this activity is a process, and you’re setting them up properly before they get to it.
Some students may be unfamiliar with where they might find academic resources. There’s nothing wrong with that at all; in fact, it presents a great opportunity for a ten minute mini-lesson, perhaps involving some peer-teaching. “Who can tell me where I might find articles on X in the school library?”; “Holly, can you hop on my computer and show everyone how to access JSTOR / Google Scholar?”; “I can’t read this entire book in an hour… Archie, how I could find the most important bits for my project?”
Once the aims of the task have been made clear and students are happy with the steps involved, use your discretion to decide on where students can conduct their research. A more experienced (read: trusted) class might be allowed to head off and work wherever they feel comfortable. If they need your support, you’ll be in your classroom where they can find you easily.
If this is your class’ first attempt, it’s a good idea to monitor them in a computer suite, or keep them in the classroom while using laptops to research. If laptops or computer rooms are unavailable, limit their research to hard-copies of books and journals. Perhaps you even provide their first article for them, printed out. (This would also allow students to work in pairs for a bit of extra support!) They can complete steps 3 + 4 for homework, then attempt step 5 in the next lesson…!
Opportunities for Differentiation:
- For lower ability groups, less confident students, or for classes attempting this task for the first time, it’s a good idea to direct them explicitly to the articles that you would like them to read. This won’t take much extra work on your part, but will make the challenge a bit less daunting. Offer students a choice of four or five different articles, and allow them to pick whichever two they fancy. You may wish to rank the choices 1-5 in order of “trickiness” and allow them to pick one easier article (ranked 1 or 2), and one trickier article (ranked 3, 4, or 5).
- For more confident students, the same principle outlined above could easily apply: direct students of high ability to specific article / articles that you think would challenge and engage them.
- If you’re worried that your class might struggle with this task, why not restrict the independent research aspect to steps 1 and 2 (even simpler if everyone is reading the same article)? Save steps 3, 4, and 5 for another day. Keep your aims simple, and remember: practice makes perfect!
Previous articles in this series: