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There’s Nothing on My Topic: Tips for Facilitating Student Research

Feb 24, 2017 2017-02-24

Jennifer Jones

Defining the Problem
Students can easily become discouraged and abandon research if their initial inquiry doesn't yield results. Generally, this issue can be traced to misreading the search results, taking the assignment guidelines literally, or fully formulating the final product before the student has even begun research.

Overly specific
Some students generate a research question before building their background understanding. They latch on to an idea that intrigues them and are surprised and frustrated when the full thesis entered into the search bar doesn't produce results. For example, a literature student envisions a dialogue between poets Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Walt Whitman discussing a shared vision of nature imagery in their writing. Since the student has already imagined the end product, he's ready to quit when he cannot find any articles that make the same connection..

Literal thinkers
These students follow the rubric too closely. For instance, a middle school assignment on explorers asks students to address economic impact and encounters with indigenous groups. If the language in the database article talks about trade routes, the student is stymied when she doesn't see the exact words found in the rubric.

Misreading
Students can struggle with a lengthy article containing unfamiliar vocabulary or formal language. Actively reading the text is a challenge, especially as they become increasingly accustomed to 100-character tweets and news articles of less than 1,000 words. If they don't understand the vocabulary around their topic, students can struggle to recognize that the article is relevant to their research.

Defining the solutions
Try these strategies to facilitate student research:

Build background knowledge. Start with an encyclopedia article to learn who, what, when, where, and why. Once students have this background, they can search on the terms they identified for a focused search.

Brainstorm synonyms for the search terms. In the explorer example, knowing the terms bartering, trade routes, exchange, and currency would enable the student to recognize that the database article did address the rubric.

"See also" and "Related" headings on a database page advance research. Encourage students to explore hyperlinks in articles to further develop subtopics around their research question.
Primary sources. The vocabulary in older documents can be confusing and historical events are often renamed over time. Students may need help finding and understanding primary sources such as speeches, newspaper articles, or diaries.

Model close reading. I use this passage from a 1930 history of the religious order that founded our school. This section describes the Xaverian Brothers' arrival in Louisville, Kentucky. I highlighted terms that seemed significant, and annotated to include definitions of words students might not know. The inquiry questions at the bottom of the page could become the basis of a research paper.

In just one paragraph, we witness the religious prejudice and anti-immigration sentiment of the 1850s and generate connections to current events. Similar passages offer wonderful opportunities to think about how current political and social attitudes are formed over time.


Julian, Br, C.F.X. Men and Deeds. New York, Macmillian Company, 1930.

Following a close read strategy consistently will lead students to adopt all of these skills. When students stop to define words and ideas they don't know, check out the biography of an unfamiliar figure, or read up on a speech or historic event mentioned in a news story, they are well on their way to becoming savvy media consumers. While they may not always take the time to hunt down each fact before they share or post, my goal for every student is that they will recognize the importance of looking critically at what they read and practice all of these transferrable skills in their daily lives.

Jennifer Jones holds a degree from Smith College and Salem State University. She is a librarian at St. John's Preparatory School, a Xaverian Brothers-sponsored 6-12 school for boys in Danvers, Massachusetts. Additionally, she serves as an academic coach for a cohort of athletes and students on academic probation at a local college. Prior to becoming a librarian, Jennifer worked in grant writing and managed a community service-learning program. Find her on Twitter @sjplibrary or contact her by email.

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