Students frequently carry out informal research. They consult Google when not sure about a math formula or ask Siri what the weather will be like tomorrow. This research is quick and requires no vetting. For many students, this is the only type of research they’ve been exposed to. It should come as no surprise when students apply this same ‘strategy’ to academic research.
As teachers, our duty is to differentiate between casual everyday research and formal academic research. ISTE Student Standard 3a states: “Students plan and employ effective research strategies to locate information and other resources for their intellectual or creative pursuits” (iste.org, 2017). Research is also a major component of the Common Core Writing Standards. Students must…
- “Gather relevant information from multiple … sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase … while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.”
- “Draw evidence … to support analysis, reflection, and research.”
- “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem.” (Corestandards.org, 2010)
One framework that can be used to teach research in an explicit manner is the Big6 research method. The beauty of the Big6 method is that is a lifelong tool that can be used across disciplines and grade-levels. The Big6 emphasis on the process over the end result is invaluable if we want students to not only gather information but also to think critically and evaluate the information they are gathering.
What is the Big6 research method?
The Big6 research method is a detailed 6-step process to guide students through the research process. Much like the scientific method standardizes the process of research in science, the Big6 method standardizes research in the humanities. The method was developed by Mike Eisenberg and Bob Berkowitz in the late 1990s and is still used in K-12 schools today. The Big6 method is still very much applicable today. The Big6 is a program which “…integrates information search and use skills along with technology tools in a systematic process to find, use, apply, and evaluate information for specific needs and tasks” (Big6.com, n.d.).
Librarian Anne Rouyer published a student-friendly walkthrough to the Big6 process which she touts as a way to ‘research like a librarian.’ According to Rouyer, what sets librarians apart is “we know how to evaluate information, dissect it, analyze it, reassemble it and put it to use effectively” (2013).
How can the Big6 research method support critical information-gathering skills?
Half of the Big6 process focuses on strategic planning to research. This concept seems very counterintuitive to students, whose first instinct is to Google the topic. Yet these steps are critical if we want students to be intentional, selective, and critical of their sources.
Step 1 of the Big6 process, called Task Definition, asks students to define the problem they will solve and identify the information needed to solve the problem. This step can be broken down even further if we consider that students need to develop a research question as well as identify the project requirements as outlined by the teacher. Once students understand the project requirements, they need to consider what they already know about the topic and identify what they need to know. One way they can brainstorm these ideas is through a digital K-W-L chart.
Step 2, Information Seeking Strategies, focuses on determining the best sources for the project. Instead of going straight to Google, Students first identify the types of sources they will use. This might include an interview, an encyclopedia entry, a nonfiction book, and a newspaper article. Students need to consider the pros and cons of each source. For example, an interview makes an excellent primary source as it provides a firsthand account. But on the other hand, it may contain bias, so the student may want to include a news account of the event for a neutral perspective. Students also must be taught to identify credible sources. One tool that can be used to teach evaluation of sources is the CRAAP test.
In order to search effectively, students need to identify keywords and subtopics. Keywords will guide research when performing online searches or consulting the index of a book. Subtopics provide a way for students to organize the information as they research.
Step 3 is called Location and Access, a title that is fairly self-explanatory. The logistics of research include the location of information. A student needs to know if they’ll be using the school library, or if they will need to arrange to visit the public library. If a student plans to use a library database, they’ll need to know if it can be accessed from home or only at school. They’ll need to have their login and understand the overall database.
An often overlooked step is teaching students how to access information within a source. I found that even in my advanced middle school Language Arts class, most students had not been taught to identify text features or use the table of contents or index to narrow down their search. They were also unfamiliar with the Boolean search operators which would help them hone in on relevant sources. Teaching these skills to students, along with the skill of scanning, is critical.
Step 4 of the Big6 process, Use of Information, details how to record information from sources. This can be a time-consuming step to teach as it involves organizing information as it is received and also documenting sources so as to avoid plagiarism and respect copyright. Online sites like CiteThisForMe and EasyBib can assist students in developing a bibliography. Digital note-taking options include Google Slides, Coggle, and Evernote.
Step 5, Synthesis, requires students to put together their findings in a logical way. This is where having subtopics comes in handy. The digital note-taking options make it easy for students to sort information and delete redundant or weak facts. Once the information has been sorted and a conclusion reached, students present their findings. This is a great opportunity for students to demonstrate choice…will they create a poster, write a blog post, or give an oral presentation? The choices are nearly limitless.
The final step of the Big6, Evaluation, is one that is often neglected in the classroom. Pausing to consider what went well, what was challenging, and why is critical for students. Students can take an active role in the assessment process by reflecting on their own progress and learning. Read Write Think has a free reflection handout that can be reproduced in the classroom.
For a student-friendly, step-by-step guide to the Big6 research process, please view my previous post.
Using the Big6 to support student choice and real-world learning
Lisa Johnson emphasizes the connection between autonomy and agency and why it is essential to allow students a choice in their learning: “[Autonomy] is the intentional practice of valuing agency over task. It is being given the why and allowing students to determine the how and the what on their own so they become independent thinkers and decision makers” (Johnson, 2017).
The following graphic is helpful in visualizing how a Big6 research project can be standards-based while still allowing students to demonstrate agency in their own learning.
Johnson goes on to acknowledge that scaffolding may be required to execute this process with younger students. For example, students might be given an umbrella under which to develop their topics. This might be a very general topic (ie- Civil Rights) or an open-ended question that still allows for choice (ie- Choose an event from the Civil Rights movement and describe its impact on America).
Big6.com. (n.d.). Big6 Skills Overview. [online] Available at: http://big6.com/pages/about/big6-skills-overview.php [Accessed 4 Feb. 2018].
Corestandards.org. (2010). Common Core State Standards English Language Arts. [online] Available at: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/9-10/ [Accessed 4 Feb. 2018].
Eisenberg, M. and Berkowitz, R. (2000). Teaching Information & Technology Skills: The Big6 in Secondary Schools. Worthington, OH: Linworth Pub.
Iste.org. (2017). ISTE Standards For Students. [online] Available at: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018].
Johnson, L. (2017). Cultivating Communication in the Classroom: Future-Ready Skills for Secondary Learners. 1st ed. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, p.74.
Rouyer, A. (2013). Research Like a Librarian: Using “Big6 Skills” for Better Grades!. [online] The New York Public Library. Available at: https://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/11/18/research-using-big6-skills-better-grades [Accessed 4 Feb. 2018].