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Volume 31, Number 2
March/April 2015

Improving Students' Research Skills

New Tests Raise Expectations Across the Grades


The sixth-graders at Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, N.Y., wanted a skateboard park, so they decided to make their case to city officials.

The students had met with representatives from youth and recreation organizations and knew that some members of the community were leery of the idea because they were concerned about the potential for crime and saw little benefit. So the students got to work. Over the course of the 2011–2012 school year, they analyzed economic data and found evidence that skate parks around the United States had actually generated development around them. They looked through crime data and found that while there was some evidence of vandalism and public smoking and drinking, there was little evidence of violent crime. And they interviewed officials from other cities that had skate parks, including Louisville, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Diego. In the end, the students presented their research to city officials, showing that skate parks provide economic benefits and do not contribute to increased crime.

Unfortunately for them, the officials did not agree to build the park. But their teacher, Chris Dolgos, encouraged them to keep trying. “I tell them, ‘This is your community; you have a voice.’” Even if they don’t ultimately agree with you, he told them, “people will listen to you if you have the right information.”

Genesee Community Charter School is part of the national Expeditionary Learning network, in which student research projects, called “expeditions,” are central to the curriculum. All students in the approximately 150 schools in the network spend substantial amounts of time on extended projects that require them to delve through background readings to gather evidence, evaluate the quality of the evidence, and come up with a conclusion that they present, often publicly.

Now students across the country will be engaging in research projects, though not all will be as extensive as the skate-park project. The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 43 states, place a strong emphasis on research in all grades because of its importance in preparing students for higher education and the workplace. The assessments developed by two state consortia will be administered this spring in half the states and will include a simulated research project.

This emphasis on research reflects the idea that research is essential for college and careers, according to Sue Pimentel, a lead writer on the Common Core English language arts standards. “If you think about what you do when you’re in a college class or on the job, you are asked to gather information on a particular topic, evaluate it, synthesize it, and report on the information you found.” She adds, “We [on the standards-writing team] knew that research was a skill employers and college faculty held in high regard.”

Yet research projects can pose challenges in classrooms. Students must have access to a wide range of materials and learn how to pull credible evidence from them—a particular challenge in the age of Google—and teachers need to carve out time for students to take on extended projects. But teachers who have had students conduct research agree that the experience is well worth it. And so do students, says Beth Mowry, a science teacher at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York City, where students regularly write research papers to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. “All the time we hear from kids who are in college, ‘We hated those when we were in school, but now we are so equipped,’” she says.

New Expectations

Schools have long required students to write research papers, but these requirements were geared more to high school students and high-achieving students. However, a 2012 survey of Advanced Placement teachers and teachers affiliated with the National Writing Project gave students relatively low marks for their research skills. Nearly three in five teachers rated students’ ability to use multiple sources to support an argument as “fair” or “poor”; 61 percent gave the same ratings to students’ ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online. Very few teachers considered students’ research skills “excellent.”

The Common Core State Standards expand the expectations for research skills and require them for all students. Three out of 10 Common Core writing standards address research directly:
  • Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. (Standard #7)
  • Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism. (Standard #8)
  • Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. (Standard #9)
In addition, the standards document states that research and media skills are blended into all the standards, meaning that, ideally, students use the skills of research, such as drawing evidence from texts and citing it in writing, throughout their classroom activities. “Research brings reading, writing, and speaking and listening together,” says Pimentel. “You can’t write about something you haven’t read about. And you may share some of your research findings verbally.”

The standards also extend research expectations to every grade. Diana Leddy, a consultant for the Vermont Writing Collaborative, says that, contrary to widespread belief, children as young as in first grade can conduct research. Although people think children that young are unable to think abstractly and come up with a conclusion, she says, that’s really due to “an inability to hold large amounts of information in their memory. When they can physically manipulate information, they can come up with pretty abstract thinking.” For example, she says, teachers can read texts to students and have the students raise their hands when they come across a piece of information that will help them answer a research question (e.g., How does the moon’s shape change over time?). Teachers can then write the information on a Post-it note that students place into a graphic organizer.

Beginning this spring, the assessments developed by two state consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—will measure students’ ability to conduct research through simulated projects. The assessments will be administered in two parts. One part will be a test requiring students to answer multiple choice and open-ended questions during a set amount of time. The other part will ask students to conduct extended performance tasks, and one of the tasks will provide students with reading materials and ask them to synthesize evidence from them and write a paper that draws a conclusion from the evidence presented in the materials.

Pimentel acknowledges that because of the pressure to prep students for these tests, some teachers might limit their teaching to the types of simulated research exercises included in the consortia assessments. “That’s always a danger,” she says, “but it would be more of a danger if research were left untouched and wasn’t at all a part of the test.”

Step by Step

Teachers who have led students through research projects say that they guide their students through each stage of the research process and provide support when necessary. “We take small steps along the way,” says Genesee’s Dolgos.

The first step is helping students gather evidence from sources. Caitlin LeClair, a seventh-grade teacher at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, has students read texts closely to find the information the authors provide. “They identify the central idea, and then we slow it down more: What is the gist of this section of the text? What supports what you are saying?” The Common Core Standards have helped students gather evidence because they provide students with more opportunities to read nonfiction, says Mowry of the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies. The Common Core suggests that, in elementary grades, half of students’ reading should be nonfiction; in secondary grades the proportion should go up to 70 percent. (This includes all classes, not just English language arts.) “Up to the Common Core, most reading was fiction,” Mowry says. “I’m excited that kids are taught strategies to access information from nonfiction.”

Some students have done original research in addition to gathering evidence from written materials. As part of a project on the civil rights movement, students at King Middle School interviewed local residents who were part of the movement. They then compiled a history that was distributed widely throughout the city (see sidebar, “A Yearlong Research Project”).

After gathering information, students also have to be able to evaluate the credibility of sources, notes Mowry. The proliferation of materials on the Internet makes this skill particularly important. “There is a lot of pseudoscientific information out there,” Mowry says.

One way she and others have helped students weigh their sources is by presenting information from multiple perspectives. That way, students can understand that a single source might be biased.

For example, students at Genesee examined a range of sources in conducting research on making school lunches more environmentally sound. First they read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which argues that locally grown food and meals made from natural ingredients are more environmentally friendly than prepackaged foods. They then read materials from the McDonald’s website that claim Chicken McNuggets are environmentally friendly because McDonald’s practices responsible land use and proper waste disposal. By weighing the McDonald’s claims against Pollan’s, the students could determine which was more credible, rather than by simply accepting Pollan’s, says Dolgos. “They become critical readers,” Dolgos says.

Librarians have also become key allies in teachers’ efforts to teach students to gather and evaluate information. At King Middle School, for example, the librarian teaches a class to help students find sources on the Internet and see the perspective each source takes.

The final step in the research process is presentation. How students present their research findings varies. In many cases, students write papers and articles. But students have also made presentations to outside audiences, as the Genesee students did on their skate-park project. Leddy says that presentations are highly motivating to students. “The best projects are the ones that have an authentic audience,” she says.

Dolgos recalls one student who decided to study civil engineering after a research project on housing. “They think larger about the world and their role in it,” he says. “They become the crew, not passengers.”

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and a frequent contributor to the Harvard Education Letter.

For Further Information

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association Center for Best Practice. Available online at

Expeditionary Learning:

K. Purcell et al. How Teens Do Research in the Digital World. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2012. Available online at

Small Acts of Courage: