Teaching Effective Research Skills to Middle and High School Students


In this recent article I discussed the alarming incidence of plagiarism by students, particularly copy/pasting work from online sources directly into their research work, often re-arranging some text so that it appeared to be in their own words. If students are properly taught basic skills in how to gather and organise their research, then they can build on these skills while at the same time be less motivated to plagiarise. There confidence will continue to grow as they master research work of increasing complexity as they progress through high school and then onto university. I am therefore writing this article in an effort to describe my attempts to teach these basic skills.

Remodelling an ICT Course

key competencies combinedAt my last school I, along with another teacher, taught a compulsory half-year ICT course for all 400 Year 9 new entrants (average age 13). The course was a carryover of the teaching of basic microsoft word, powerpoint and excel skills to students. Rather than continue with this model, we set out to refocus the course so that students would complete collaborative inquiry, research and presentation tasks, with the learning of digital technologies a natural outcome rather than the end goal. In other words, the learning of key competency skills as described by the NZ curriculum would become a focus, enabling the curriculum vision for all learners to become confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners.

(Image Source: https://nz-curriculum.wikispaces.com/2+Approaches)

A limitation of the ICT course was the lack of contact time. In each half of 2014 I taught 3 classes of 30 students, with contact time for a class limited to just three 50 minute lessons per fortnight, totalling approximately 28 lessons. Some of this limited contact time was further interrupted due to other school-wide activities. To overcome this, it was decided that we would use Google Docs and other web tools, which enabled our students anywhere, any-time collaborative access outside the classroom. This dramatically increased our capability to remodel the course.

The Collaborative Inquiry Research TaskGoogle_Docs_Collection_Wide

The first task took about 8 weeks to complete. Essentially students were assigned a topic in pairs and asked to research and present it to the class (Note: students had no choice of topics due to time pressure).

Essential requirements were:

  1. a 2-3 minute presentation (in Google Presentation and shared to the teacher)
  2. both students to take part in all aspects
  3. research notes (in Google Docs and shared to the teacher) to be printed for a well-rehearsed presentation
  4. research notes to be originally written (all notes to be were passed through a plagiarism checker)
  5. assessment was using SOLO Taxonomy

Here is a link to the task description and assessment requirements
– Link to 1st half year student topics (2014)
– Link to 2nd half year student topics (2014)

Teaching the Process

Starting with an Exemplar

There is plenty of research that says that students benefit from good assessment exemplars, so to kick things off I delivered my own presentation, which the students were duly invited to dissect and comment on. Students were then encouraged to continually refer my  presentation and research notes to assist them with their own task.

Emphasising the process, rather than the outcome

I then went through the task outline with the students clearly highlighting its purpose. Once they understood the task was to help them to develop a range of skills, I then presented them with some important non-negotiable guidelines for their research:

  1. They were at no time to copy and paste from a web source. Instead, they were encouraged to summarise key points as briefly as possible. One exception was that they could copy/paste a quote if they felt that it was worth using.
  2. The other exception was actually a requirement for them to copy/paste the links of any information sources into a reference list (a bibliography of sorts) in their research document.
  3. They were not permitted to create or work on the presentation until the research notes had been completed and given my approval. It was important for them to understand that the research process was a generic and important skill to learn and completely separate from presenting. Presentation could have been done in a range of different ways for this type of research, such as powerpoint (in this case), diagram, video documentary…and so on.

InquiryImage Source: www.gotcredit.com – Creative Commons Licence

Scaffolding the process

1. Outlining: The students did some background inquiry into their topic question and were then encouraged to create an outline with headers before they started gathering further information. This is an important skill in itself requiring students to identify key ideas which is quite separate from supporting information (evidence).

2. Gathering and organising: Students were encouraged to bullet point as succinctly as possible key pieces of supporting information in their own words. The emphasis was placed on synthesis, rewording any important details as briefly as possible. During this process students were improving their gathering skills, in deciding between the important information (to include) and the not so important (to leave out). When students copy and paste whole paragraphs of information, they tend to feel the need to include the majority of it.

Teacher feedback: As students continued through the research process I gave a lot of feedback. Mostly on things like:

  • Outlining – regularly questioning students about what sort of things (key ideas) people might like to know about their topic, or if their idea sequence was logical or could be improved.
  • Synthesis and Significance – This is a difficult skill for students who would often write too much. I often referred them to my own research notes along with a word count (about 400 words) and asked them to do the same for theirs. Often they were surprised to find themselves already over the 3 minute presentation word limit with only half their research completed. I would assist them to start ‘gutting’ what they had written down to the more essential pieces of information. An example is that students often felt the need to include when and where an important person was born, information about their family and their childhood. I would ask if the audience really needed to know this sort of information or had they found other aspects that were of more significance. The word significance was used regularly as students were asked to reflect on what they were constructing.
  • Reference to the assessment requirements – If a group’s research was lacking in a particular area, I would often pull up the Assessment requirements (SOLO Taxonomy) and ask the students to identify what standard they thought that their work was currently at. Of course, they were always spot on. Then they were asked to identify from the assessment template the areas that they needed to work on.

Learning off their peers: Students were not only encouraged to use my exemplar, but also to observe and discuss the work of their classmates for ideas on outlining and information gathering and organising. Sometimes when I was giving feedback I would send learners to a specific group that was modelling an aspect particularly well, so they could discuss it with them. Of course, by working in pairs there was already a good amount of discussion and reflective thinking occurring.

3. Creating an effective presentation: Once the students had completed their research they were allowed to create their 10-15 slide (Powerpoint) presentation. We called this the fun reward to follow the hard work of researching. Students were encouraged to:

    • Use their outline headers as presentation slide headers
    • Use images and virtually no text on the slides. The slides were to be a visual support of what they were reading from their presentation (research) notes.
    • Print the student notes (a copy each) rather than use presenter view. This allowed students to avoid focusing on unnecessary new technology tools during their important presentations.

4. Presenting to an audience: Student presentations were delivered to the rest of the class over the final 2-3 lessons. Those delivering theirs earlier were taken aside and given presentation tips. Each group took questions from the audience following their presentation. I also gave feedback, where appropriate, to the class after each presentations which was focused on what students were doing well. Ongoing feedback enabled students presenting later to refine theirs and again emphasised the task as an ongoing learning process, as opposed to just the end product.

Some Presentation Tips given to students were:
– Modulate voices (emphasising key parts)
– Raising and project their voices (not to be shy)
– To scan the room as they present, rather than looking in one spot
– Put presenter breaks (vertical lines) in their notes….to slow it down and breathe
– To look at the laptop screen, rather than behind them at the projector screen (to ensure images were clicked to right place)

Student Outcomes

The higher Quality of Student Work

In every situation that I have created a similar student-centred task, the most significant outcome is the high quality of student work. Students learn a lot from research and creating presentations which, I explain later, can be adapted to encompass the teaching of entire units of work.

I have included below a good range of examples of student presentations along with their presenter (research) notes:

Tangiwai Disaster – Notes

Te Rauparaha – Notes

What are the Auckland Islands? (link to notes)
Who was Georgy Zhukov?      (link to notes)
Who was Hugh O’Flaherty?     (link to notes)
Who was Keith Park?    (link to notes)
What is Lake Baikal?      (link to notes)
Who was Mikhail Kalashnikov?   (link to notes)
Who was Titokowaru?      (link to notes)
What was the Dust Bowl?      (link to notes)
Who are the Monkees?      (link to notes)
What is Venezuela?      (link to notes)
What are the Appalachians?      (link to notes)
Who is John Clarke?      (link to notes)
Who was Geronimo?      (link to notes)
Who was Raoul Wallenberg?      (link to notes)

Engagement dramatically increases

When students are hands-on and re-creating knowledge they become highly engaged. Furthermore, requiring students to present their work to an audience makes them accountable, and the commitment level rises.

Reducing and Eliminating Plagiarism

One of the goals of this research task was to reduce plagiarism while the students gather and organise information. All student work was passed through a plagiarism checker (Plagscan) and the above presentations recorded the following results:


Note: The Te Rauparaha research includes the words to his Haka (Maori ceremonial war dance) – plagiarism reduced to 0.1% with this factored in. Others to reduce due to direct quotations were Titokowaru (13.9%), Tangiwai Disaster (8.1%), and Mikhail Kalashnikov (5.5%).

Obviously some students still need to refine their skills, but considering that this was the first time the majority had completed their research in this way, it was a very pleasing result. The average plagiarism level for the above assignments, after removing my own Farewell Spit presentation and factoring in the use of quotations, is a remarkable 4.99% and within an acceptable range for a 400 word task.

The Development of Lifelong Learning Skills

At the completion of this task I often ask the class how many would feel confident enough to research and present a topic to an audience of adults in an outside organisation if they were ever asked. The large majority of students respond positively which they of course would never have prior to the task. The skills they have learned during this task gives them confidence and the capacity to repeat the process in more complex ways. Of course it is a progression, however they are now on an important pathway, many finding that they actually enjoyed the learning experience. In short, the students have learned to think at a higher level, use text to express ideas, organised and self-managed their workload to meet a deadline, and improved their relationship skills by participating and contributing in collaboration with their research partner and other students in their class. Each of the five key competency requirements of the New Zealand curriculum have been met, enabling students to become more confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners.

Extending the skills across other subjects and to higher grade levels

extending and optionsThis approach would be far more effective if adopted school-wide. I mentioned in my previous article (on plagiarism) that students need to regularly practice the skill of gathering and organising research. Here are some examples of how the task I have described above could be remodelled in different ways:

(Above Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/o5com/Creative Commons Licence)

From these examples one can plainly see that research based inquiry tasks can be redesigned to suit a wide range of curriculum learning areas and abilities while enabling students to present their work in a variety of ways. In essence, these student-centred inquiry examples extend the role of the student to that of a researcher and teacher, something that I intend writing about in a later article.


The New Zealand Curriculum: Key competencies. (2014, April 4). Retrieved October 19, 2015, from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/Key-competencies

The New Zealand Curriculum: Vision. (2007, September 14). Retrieved October 19, 2015, from http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/The-New-Zealand-Curriculum/Vision

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