Train Your Students to Think Like Researchers

While reading Katrina Schwartz’s article titled “How Helping Students to Ask Better Questions Can Transform Classrooms,” I was struck by the line “many older students have forgotten how to ask their own questions about the world, afraid that if they wonder they will be wrong.” When do kids lose the curiosity that drives them to ask so many questions as children? Why are they so afraid of being wrong? How do we inspire older students to take risks, ask bold questions, and seek their own answers?

These are questions every educator should be asking. As Schwartz points out, “good questioning may be the most basic tenet of lifelong learning and independent thinking.” The Right Question Institute published a resource on the Question Formulation Technique™ that teachers can access if they want to learn how to support their students in generating questions to drive research and learning.

Once students learn a clear strategy to develop questions, they must become researchers able to find answers. In most classrooms, the closest students get to research is using the Google Search engine, but that is only one strategy for gathering information. As a doctoral student in the middle of what feels like endless research, I believe it is valuable to teach students to extend their data collection beyond an online search.

Before students begin conducting research, they should ask themselves, “What type of information am I looking for?” Do they want to collect data in the form of numbers to understand the extent of a problem? Are they trying to explore why something happens or understand a behavior? The answers to these questions will inform the types of research techniques they will employ.

Too often students rely entirely on someone else’s research, data, and analysis. They do not feel empowered to collect and analyze their own data. However, if we want our students to think like researchers, we need to provide them with the tools necessary to conduct real research. Gathering their own data to complement online research has the following benefits:

  • It actively engages them in the research process as collectors of data.
  • It requires that they learn how to leverage tools beyond a simple Google search to understand a problem, issue, or phenomenon.
  • It demands critical thinking and analytical skills.
  • It develops technical skills (e.g., learn to use an online survey tool) and soft skills (e.g., practice interview skills).
  • It increases interest in the topic and investment in the quality of the report, infographic, or presentation on findings.

Thanks to technology and the internet, it is easier than ever for students to collect their own data. Students can:

  • Design surveys Google Forms, Survey Monkey, or Zoho.
  • Use voice memos or another audio recording app to capture data collected in interviews.
  • Skype, Google Hangout, or Zoom with people who may not be able to meet face-to-face for an interview.
  • Record video during observations.
  • Connect with experts via social media.

If students learn how to generate questions and conduct research to answer those questions, they are more likely to take that researcher mindset into the world and continue learning long after they have left our classrooms.

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5 Responses to Train Your Students to Think Like Researchers

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  2. Kristen says:

    Thank you for your thoughts! It’s amazing how technology can allow us to both learn about a subject in depth and also cut corners to find an easy answer. Good research can apply to every subject area, and I hope more students take it to heart.

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  4. Mike Savignano says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Catlin! Teaching students to be critical of the world around them, formulate thoughtful questions, and then follow up on them in a way that challenges their thinking is a powerful educational goal. In my own 8th grade classroom, I’ve had students ask questions on a large scale like “What do colleges do to help stop sexual assault?” and also on a local scale such as “Is the town doing everything it can to prevent accidents on [local street that is near an elementary school]?” The latter student ended up conducting an email interview with a member of the police department and was able to get accident data for the street. This was an awesome start, but in the future I’d like to encourage a student like that to get some qualitative data as well – possibly from parents who live on the street and are concerned for their children.

    • Hi Mike,

      I think it’s so important for students to ask tough real-world questions. These are the types of questions they care about because they impact their lives.

      I agree that collecting qualitative data would make the issues they are curious about really real. Interviewing people can be such a powerful data collection tool that lends so much insight into a problem or issue. The challenge from a teaching perspective is to help them break that qualitative data down to make sense of it. As with most of the really valuable learning activities, it takes time 🙂

      Catlin

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