The last couple of mornings I’ve spent time with a couple of different freshman writing seminars getting them ready to tackle the research component of their classes. Both times I tried a technique that I’d done once last year when I co-taught with a colleague of mine. It’s kind of like concept mapping… but with an eye toward building searches.
Here’s how it works:
- Talk about how writing a research paper is like participating in a conversation.
When you enter a conversation at a party, you need to know a) who’s talking, b) what they’re talking about, and c) how they’re talking about it. Parroting back what people say is not a conversation. Actually contributing to the conversation means having a grasp of the topic and the vocabulary that is in use within that conversation. Relevant vocabulary is also important because search is basically vocabulary matching.
- Write a “topic” up on the board.
This should not be a beautifully narrowed topic, both because that makes the exercise harder and because that’s not actually reaching students where they are. In both cases, for me, the students were at the “I want to do something about globalization and agriculture” stage. Yesterday I got a student volunteer to write his topic on the board. Today’s class was a little more structured and twice as long, so I picked a topic that I knew would serve as a robust enough foundation for all the components of the class.
- Invite students to come up and write the answers to two questions: “Who might have studied this topic?” and “What questions might they have asked of the topic?”
So, for example, if the topic is “organic food” students might write “EPA,” or “Behavioral economists,” or “farmers,” or “doctors,” or “sociologists” (these are examples from this morning’s exercise). Some questions included “is organic food more nutritious than conventionally grown food?” and “what motivates people to buy organic food?”
- Talk as a group about what terms might crop up in the articles by the different groups, building searches as you go.
Basically, that black board full of groups and questions serves as the basis for the rest of the class. Searching Google? Show how to limit to .gov sources to hit those EPA people. Searching Academic Search Premier? Talk about differences in disciplinary language and collect subject headings that match the topic at hand. Having trouble with students still typing “effect of pesticides on the production of corn” into search boxes? The blackboard helps you remind students to step outside of their own phrasing of the topic and choose meaningful terms that would have appeared in, for example, a report from the USDA. STILL having trouble? Do it again. And again. And little by little it sinks in.
An added benefit of this technique is that it gets the whole class up and moving near the beginning. I can’t tell you how much this changes the atmosphere of a morning class full of sceptical freshmen. I don’t know why it helps, but I’ll go with it.