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Turning Topics Into Searches

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.

Published inFirst Year StudentsIn My ClassroomTeaching and Learning


  1. I love this! I’ve send it to my colleagues who also teach freshmen. We’re always looking for new ideas to try in our classes.

  2. This looks great. I’m always looking for new ideas to use in my composition classes.

  3. Alyssa Alyssa

    I taught a class last night on narrowing research topics. Even though it was a 200 level class this is something that they needed to learn. If only I had seen this blog posting yesterday morning! This blog is fantastic! Thanks for all of your insight and suggestions! Keep up the great work.

  4. Iris Iris

    Thanks guys! If you figure out tweaks or changes as you’re experimenting with this, I’d love to know. I feel like it’s a technique with potential, but I’ve only just begun to work out the bugs.

  5. Nic Nic

    This is a really nice idea. I already do something similar with my 9th grade Information Literacy class, but I like the activity aspect of your plan. I may try it out next semester. Thanks for Sharing!

    Nic Netzel (Carleton ’01)

  6. Iris Iris

    Hi Nic. Nice to see an alumn here!

    Sounds like you’ve been doing this with your classes for longer than I have, so if you have any pointers for making it run smoothly, or other aspects of information literacy I can hang on the exercise, I’m all ears.

  7. […] Turning topics into searches Builds off of the idea of concept mapping in ways that then generate source decisions and search terms in very practical ways. This takes about 15 minutes and it helps if you have some seeds to start with that you can lay out on the board as the students are working. […]

  8. Always love the way you think about research–I also teach about “conversations,” because, to me, searching is a conversation. An important conversational skill is checking whether you make sense to your conversation partner, and also listening for new ideas that might change your thinking. When I search I offer a notion/query. My first job is to look at my results and see if the search tool “understood” my need, or if I should reframe it in order to communicate fully. During this iterative process, I keep a careful ear open for any new ideas (such as search terms, but also points of view, theories, etc.) that my conversation partner offers up. And so on…. Thank you so much for sharing your lessons–helps me to reframe how I think about my own, and add on new ideas.

  9. Oh, I like that idea of the search itself being a conversation. I wonder how I can make that metaphor mesh with my emphatic “COMPUTERS CAN’T READ” statements (which I use to emphasize the need to watch for terms that might make better search terms, because all the computer is doing is matching letters in a row). I’ll have to think on this… Thanks!

  10. That is so funny, I also teach that computers can’t read–just as firmly. Sigh. I guess the conversation is mediated by the search engine, but is actually with my fellow humans around the world, no? Since the search tool is not the source of the information. I’ll be thinking about it, too…

  11. Hmmm… Yes, I think mediated conversations might be the way to mesh the two, or having a conversation with someone/something where you also have to teach them the language? There’s a solution in there somewhere! Or else we could just mix our metaphors proudly. :-)

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