What was different this time?
First, I let students choose their tools. For a long time, I’ve used this project as a chance for students to work on their web searching skills, and to practice using http://www.CitationMachine.net to help create their bibliography.
This year, instead of making students use notecards for note-taking, I let them use the tool of their choice. Many chose to use Word for notes, but a few used Zoho Notebook. (We had to use a tool that either already existed on their computers, or a web-based tool that didn’t have to be installed on a school computer.) I still made students print down copies of articles they found and highlight, because some kids won’t read anything until 8 PM on the night before the draft is due if you don’t give them regular milestones along the way. How they took notes after that was up to them.
But letting students choose their tool made a difference. Their outlines and reports were still well-organized (the reason I originally required notecards), but when I let them choose what worked best for them, students were a lot more invested in the work.
Second, I added reflection. Each student had their own thread as part of a Moodle discussion forum; every week, students wrote about their experiences that week – the frustrations, the breakthroughs, the cool things they discovered about the person they were researching. I responded with suggestions, encouragement, attaboys, and resources.
Giving students a chance to think about what they were learning added a depth to the project that it hasn’t had for them before. It also gave them the chance to identify problems (such as finding the same information over and over due to a simplistic search strategy, or difficulty with a sibling hogging the home computer), and get help.
This may seem small, but kids don’t always respond when you ask the class face-to-face if they have questions or need help; some just won’t say that in front of the class. The reflection-teacher response cycle also added a powerful teacher-student connection. Each student got specific, personal, individual attention – and what kid doesn’t want that? (I’ve written about this before: http://adventuresonlineteaching.blogspot.com/2010/11/feedback-improving-student-teacher.html)
Two different ways to support learners, both effective.
We still had our traditional end-of-project donuts, because it’s worth celebrating a major accomplishment. But for the first time, the papers reflected a stunning amount of effort. The strong students weren’t just going through the motions to get the work done; their work glittered. Even the students who hate to write all worked mightily; when they turned in well-organized, interesting, virtually error-free papers, on time, it was a major milestone.
Looking back, I realized that this wasn’t a project that we suffer through any more. Instead, we were all energized, enriched. My students’ skill-base was expanded and strengthened. We wrote research papers, and – I never thought I’d say this - we had fun.
Sidebar- Why don’t I give students different options in presenting their work, not just formal written papers? Because I teach in a Catholic school, and Catholic school students learn to write. :)