Credibility, Citation, and Curation: a 21st Century Take on Research Skills

Throughout this quarter in the Digital Education Leadership MEd program, I’ve been working on a unit plan that encompasses the Understanding by Design teaching model, Common Core English Language Arts Writing standard 8 which deals with research skills, and ISTE Student Standard 2c which asks students to consider the rights and obligations of using others’ intellectual property online. This blog post serves to outline the process I took in applying the Understanding by Design Model as well as sharing the unit plan I created.


In my prior district, all of our 8th-grade students completed an interdisciplinary research project where the English teachers, History teachers, and librarian worked together to assist students as they researched an issue of their own choosing within the umbrella of Human Rights. By far, the most difficult aspect of this project for students was in determining which sources they should use. Even when given a specific database to use, students had difficulty in determining the best source when multiple options were presented. The problem was compounded when using Google to find outside resources. Too frequently, students attempted to use websites that were not credible or they simply chose the top results on Google. As a teacher, I was so focused on the end result (a presentation supported by a digital presentation tool of student choice) that I didn’t spend enough time thinking through this critical element of the puzzle. Throughout the quarter, I was asked, “Is this a good source?” much too often. Other teachers argued that students’ online research should be limited to school-subscribed databases like SIRS to avoid this issue altogether. I felt (and continue to feel) passionately that effective, real-world searching skills are necessary so I diverted from the department norm. However, I clearly could have done a better job of scaffolding the individual research skill sets.


I began my unit by formulating an essential question: How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources? I then broke my question down by considering what I really wanted students to accomplish. I followed the advice of Wiggins and McTighe: “Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results” (14). Or, to put it simply, begin with the end in mind. The end result of this backward design thinking was the separation of the unit into four skill sets.

  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Effectively searching requires that students find online sources that are credible. It also requires students to evaluate multiple sources in order to determine which source best meets their research needs.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Ethical sourcing of information online requires that students avoid plagiarism by giving credit to source authors/creators. This includes knowledge of HOW to cite (MLA format for the English classroom) as well as the knowledge of WHEN to cite.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Finding information online requires that students do more than just pop their essential question into Google. Students can use Boolean search operators and advanced search options to get better quality results.
  • How can students effectively and ethically find and use online sources?
    • Using sources online can take many different forms. Regardless of the end project (be it the traditional research paper, a blog post, or a paper poster), students need to know how to actively read and interact with online sources.

Stage 1 of the Universal Design process includes the identification of desired results.

Established Goals (with standards)

  • Students will effectively and ethically find and use online sources. Throughout this unit, students will: 1) use search terms effectively, 2) assess the credibility of each source, and 3) use online information while avoiding plagiarism and citing sources.
  • Unit addresses CCSS ELA Writing 8 (which covers researching, evaluating, citing, and synthesizing multiple sources) and ISTE Student Standard 2c (the respect of intellectual property online). The unit is appropriate for students grade 7-10.
What essential questions will be considered?

  • What tools can be used to find relevant sources online?
  • How can a reader determine if information online is trustworthy?
  • What makes one source more beneficial than another in terms of answering an essential question?
  • How can writers avoid plagiarism and properly credit their sources?
  • What does it look like when researchers actively read and interact with sources? Why is this important?
  • Why is it important to curate and publish information online?
What understandings are desired?

  • Students will understand how to refine their online searches for more precise results.
  • Students will understand what makes an online source credible and relevant to their research.
  • Students will understand how to use information from online sources in a legal and ethical way.
  • Students will understand how and why to actively read (using notations, underlining, and comments) online sources.
  • Students will understand how and why to curate information online.

Stage 2 of the Universal Design process includes the identification of acceptable evidence.

For the unit’s performance task, I wanted to include an authentic and engaging way for students to demonstrate their understanding of research skills. When I came upon a blog post on curation from Jennifer Gonzalez, the idea for a project was born.

Show You Know with a Curated List: Students will research, evaluate, and critically respond to a topic of their choosing. The research and evaluation process will look similar for all students, but the topic and curated list is unique to their interests. They can choose to explore a future career, a hobby, social or political concerns, etc. The end result will be a curated list published online via  A curated list is essentially a collection and synthesis of information on a single topic from a variety of sources. It requires the traditional research elements taught in the ELA classroom with the addition of analyzing and evaluating the quality of sources in order to meet a specific publishing goal. For example, “3 Must-Read Harry Potter Fanfictions” would involve the creator’s personal preference and also their ability to summarize the stories and persuade readers to read them. Instructional topics such as “So You Want to Play the Drums” require students to present their findings in a sequential way that is clear enough for a beginner to benefit from their curated list. In addition to the academic benefits, curated lists are an ideal classroom tool because they require higher-order thinking and they may be published to an authentic audience (at teacher/parent discretion). Student example on differing interpretations of free speech. On the platform, students customize each element of their list (title, photo, and commentary). Because of this, the possibilities really are endless.

Stage 3 of the Universal Design process includes the specific learning experiences that will guide students through the learning process.

As I frequently do with my teaching, I blended existing online sources with unique sources I made specifically for this unit. My unit is broken up into the 4 skill sets I identified in Stage 1: Strategic Searching, Credible/Quality Sources, Credit Given to Authors, and Meaningful Interaction with Sources. I used a puzzle piece metaphor to help students visualize the various skills coming together to support solid research. This metaphor extends to the student note page which provides students a way to collect evidence from class discussions and work through an essential question for each skill set. At the end of the unit, the note page is a reference sheet that students can use in the future for any research assignment (including the performance task). Below is my complete, 2-week unit, “Credibility, Citation, and Curation: a 21st Century take on Research Skills.” To access the resources linked within, please open via Google Docs, here.

For a preview of the Performance Task (and explanation of curated lists) please check out the video tutorial I made below.


Understanding by Design was not a new concept to me, but it was extremely helpful to take an existing learning objective and rethink the learning process using the framework. If my experience is like that of other teachers, the best practices we learn in our credential programs occasionally must be sacrificed in the interest of hundreds of papers to grade, clubs to advise, meetings to attend, and lessons to present.

I’m thankful for the opportunity through my MEd program to take a deep dive into previously taught material while considering the lens of the ISTE standards. ISTE Student Standard 2c is a key component of any research project. Students must learn when and how to credit other sources. Students often think that they only need to credit a source if a direct quote is used. Or they change a few words and believe that is not plagiarism. For this reason, I wanted to incorporate not only the formatting guidelines of MLA, but also give students practice with crediting the various types of note-taking (quotes, paraphrasing, summarizing, etc).

Part of the Understanding by Design framework is evaluating what it means for students to truly understand the material you are presenting. Through the Performance Task, students were asked to apply the various elements they’d learned about research in publishing a curated list of sources and information on a topic of their choosing. I love the idea of having students create a curated list of sources because it is an ideal project to demonstrate knowledge of searching strategies, website evaluation, proper citations, and synthesis of information. Throughout the project, students much choose the BEST source, not just any source, and the justification they write allows their thinking in this aspect to be visible.


Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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