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Individualizing the Research Process in an Online Environment

By Craig Taylor Odle - Posted Sep 1, 2004
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Slugs, Scramblers, and Accessors

Three types of researchers show up at my high school library. Many are what I categorize as the research slugs, identifiable in two variations. The first is the easy-to-spot student hiding in a corner of the library, head propped up and a puddle of drool on the table. The second slug variation is much harder to spot. This is the student who has the Annals of America open with a People magazine hidden inside. The slug is intent on avoiding research and may expend large amounts of energy to do so.

The second type of researcher is known as the scrambler. The majority of high school students seem to be scramblers. They are identifiable by their habit of gathering information haphazardly. They tend to end up with lots of information, but little of it is useful.

The third group, information accessors, is in the minority. These are the students who create a plan and conduct efficient research.

For some time I had been trying to help students move from slug and scrambler status to that of the information accessor. To accomplish this I had tried teaching various research processes to them. Unfortunately, doing so didn't yield the results I had hoped for. This was due in part to a conflict inherent in teaching most research processes: These projects are presented as one-size-fits-all lessons. But with students of varying ability, individualized instruction is needed. The conflict between the need for individualized instruction and the need for a consistent research process presented a stumbling block to progress.

At Blue Valley Northwest High School, this conflict was illustrated when we chose to include the teaching of a research process to our students as a goal area for the North Central Accreditation process. I found myself salivating at the opportunity to require our staff to use a school wide process for our students. Requiring students to use a consistent process to do their research would reinforce the skills needed to become efficient researchers. Wearing a grin, I approached a cross-curricular committee that had been formed to study different research processes that we might use.

Opposite Needs

The committee looked at several processes and noted the similarities and differences of each. The comparison we used can be viewed at My grin faded as the teachers identified different needs and concerns about the processes.

An advanced placement social studies teacher was concerned that a multi-step process would slow down some of her students who are already efficient researchers. She needed a process that had a few major steps just to keep the students focused. These steps could be fairly abstract.

A learning disabilities teacher identified the opposite need. Her students needed a process with many smaller steps. Each step needed to be broken down into manageable tasks to accommodate students with processing difficulties and attention span issues.

Each of these teachers was excited about the process, but they could not agree on which one would be best.

Let the "TION" Shine In

At that point, I needed another option. I needed a process that could morph from one with a few steps to one that had many smaller steps, depending upon the individual student's needs. I decided to give it a shot by first creating the overall research picture, a process of just five steps. These steps are not revolutionary, nor even very original; in fact they are homogenous with most research processes. The process was named the "TION" because of the common suffix of each step. What makes this research process different is that we did a task analysis on each step, which are as follows:

1. Formulation

2. Preparation

3. Location

4. Manipulation

5. Evaluation

Doing a task analysis sounds simple enough. You take a task that involves several steps and break it down into the smaller steps. The first step should involve the best special education teacher in your building, as special ed teachers have great experience in doing task analysis. They do it on a daily basis by modifying assignments and instructions for their students. In my prior life, I was a learning disabilities teacher, so I decided to dust off my skills and do a task analysis on the research process. Here is an example of how a task analysis is done.

Research Step 1, Formulation, ends with the student having a defined topic. In most cases this takes the form of a thesis. To break this down, I have to think of the simplest first step in completing this process. For formulation, the first step is to know the broad topic. The second step is to identify a narrow topic within the broad topic. Next, that narrow topic needs to be stated as an opinion. Then, you have a thesis.

This is a start, but you have probably noted that I could continue to break down this task. For instance, I could now do an analysis on narrowing the topic. Where to stop depends on your stamina and the needs of your students.

After doing the task analysis on our five-step research process, I had identified over 90 subtasks. For the process to accommodate students who may need a breakdown at one part of the process but not the other, I created a flow chart using Inspiration software. I changed the tasks into yes/no questions that lead a student through the flow chart. For instance, in Formulation, students ask themselves if they have a narrow topic. If they answer yes, they move on in the process; if they answer no, they are directed to a loop in the chart that breaks the task down for them. In this way, the process individualizes itself to the needs of each student!

The Fatal Flaw, and How I Beat It

While feeling a bit smug about my flowchart, I noticed a new problem. The strength of the flow chart, its ability to break down tasks, created a fatal flaw. If I were to present a 90-step process to students, most would be overwhelmed. Those students who need the breakdown are also likely to be those that will balk at starting such a long process. I had to find a new mode of delivery!

The answer was to put the flow chart online. Each box in the flow chart could become a Web page with a yes/no link. How a student answered each question would guide him through the site. The advantage of the Web site is that the students are only aware that they are working on one of the five steps. They are presented with one screen at a time and can focus on just that part of the process. Students are unaware that the site is breaking down the task for them. All they have to worry about is handling the current task on their screen. Having the process available online also allows students to use it at home or refer back to it after they have moved on to higher learning. The flow chart is available at

The Web site is really pretty low tech. It was created using a four-frame template in Microsoft Front Page. The HTML for the page is very simple and would not be a stretch for an intermediate Web designer. It takes a while to create all of the pages of the flow chart, but as you'll see if you look at the site, each page can be created very quickly. I am currently in the process of redesigning the site. I hope to have it available in a slicker format that is more visually appealing using Macromedia Flash and Dreamweaver.

Monitoring the Process

One challenge that teachers communicated was that it would be difficult for them to measure their students' effective use of the site. They were also worried that some students might not answer the questions in the flow chart honestly and would not receive the help they might need. The fix for this problem involves combining the online version of the research process with a student worksheet that is available at the site.

The sheet has several components that strengthen the instructional use of the process. First, the worksheet has students list their results from each part of the process. For instance, under Step 1: Formulation (see Figure 1 on page 11), the students document the broad topic, narrow topic, and thesis of their research. Alongside each of these prompts is an indicator of the Web page that would help the student out. These prompts correlate with a list of links at the bottom of the research page that jump a student to a particular spot in the flow chart. If they are having problems narrowing the topic, the worksheet will prompt them to go to F6 on the Web page. When clicking on F6, they find themselves in the task analysis for narrowing the topic!

At the end of Formulation on the worksheet, students are asked to get their teacher's signature. This ensures that the students are starting with a good foundation for their research.

The second step of the process is Preparation, in which the students figure out what they will need to find. Here, they list the sources they plan to use and the questions they plan to answer with their research. This step ends with a prompt to get a signature from a library media specialist. At this point, the students are assured a good topic and good sources. Good research is likely to follow, and the teacher has documented the students' progression through the process.

Measuring Success

Several indicators suggest that this method is helping our students become more efficient researchers. The first indicator is usage. This research process and the online tool have been presented more than 150 times over the last 2 years. Our Web site has averaged over 100,000 hits per semester, up about 1,000 percent. Our utilization reports show that classes coming to the library to do research have steadily increased. These increases are due to several factors.

The first is expectations of the school administration. Since we were able to couple the research process with accreditation, the school administration has actively supported and expected the research process to be a part of the school's curriculum. The second factor is ease of use. Teachers, especially those new to the field, report that having a process in place with online support makes teaching research a less-daunting task. In fact, researching becomes a tempting lesson due to the ease of use and time saved due to accessible materials.

Teachers are reporting that their students are getting better results with their research. By using the online process, students focus on doing efficient research. They waste less time floundering and instead find the materials to impress their teachers. As students become comfortable with the process, it makes sense that they would be willing to take some risks with their research topics. Since the implementation of the online research process, students have expanded their topics. From year to year, our library staff can usually predict what topics will get studied for certain assignments. Since the process has been used, students are willing to take on topics that are more obscure. With the process as familiar ground, students are comfortable taking risks with their research.

An example of the above occurred with a humanities class that is team taught at our high school by a communication arts teacher and a social studies teacher. A recurring project in this class is to write a paper comparing Iago from Othello to a modern-era Machiavellian leader. In the past, the usual suspects would be chosen. Names like Hitler and Stalin always dominated the research topics. But since implementing the research process, more obscure names have come up. With the comfort of the process, and the power of our databases, students are confident that they can succeed regardless of the subject they choose.

Placing the research process online has also increased the number of hits on our electronic databases. Students using the site at school or at home can navigate to the library's main site and use high-powered databases like ProQuest, LexisNexis, and EBSCO. They can also access InfoTrac, which is provided by Johnson County Public Library. Also available on the main site is a link for creating citations in both MLA and APA format. Specific help in citing databases is offered there. Students also use our style guide link for examples of how to format a paper in MLA or APA style.

Putting the research process online has greatly improved the information-accessing skills of our school community. More students are asking for research help, and the questions they have are more advanced than in previous years. Our online databases are getting more usage than at any point in our library's history. The entire faculty has been trained on using the research process. Interestingly, faculty working on advanced degrees have found the site helpful, and many more faculty have introduced their children to it. Faculty are in agreement that the online research process gives our students an advantage in research know-how as they head to college.

Craig Odle is a library media specialist at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas, and an adjunct instructor at the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, University of Missouri, Columbia. Reach Craig by e-mail at

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