Time (Can Be) on Our Side

I have many different models for what a "perfect" research project looks like; the ideal varies based on discipline, grade level, and targeted skills. But, there is one thing they all have in common: plenty of time for students to explore and iterate and develop their ideas. The ideal, however, rarely matches reality. Either the timeline is rushed or students interpret, "I have a month to do this" as "I can forget about this for three weeks."

I think a lot about time and the way we use it because I see how impactful it is when students have time and use it well. Research requires persistence and persistence takes time. Students need time to refine their questions, to build on their search results, and to evaluate and find the best sources, not just the ones most readily available. But, time is not always on our side, and the research process can become more about checking boxes than about developing skills.

I often talk with my students about research persistence and how they use time. Students are pulled in a lot of directions. They've told me that whether or not they want to put off a research assignment, they often feel like they have to in order to get to more urgent tasks. And I can't always argue with this logic! But, what I can do is work with them to establish interim deadlines in order to help them understand that research is not one BIG task, but many smaller, interdependent tasks.

With younger students, either the teacher or I will set interim deadlines for students, in order to establish what the steps look like and how long they should take. But when students move into upper-level classes, I prefer to work directly with them on setting interim deadlines for themselves, so they begin to think about how long different tasks will take and can practice the strategy before they head off to college.

Both time and persistence have an affective component that we cannot ignore. Uncertainty is an inherent part of the research process, and that uncertainty is deeply uncomfortable for students, particularly those who are drawn to more concrete tasks. Not knowing— whether it's not knowing how to focus your research, how to select your search terms, or which source is best—is deeply uncomfortable; the urge is to just decide and move on to the next task. Many students I talk to think that if they don't feel certain about what they're doing, they must be doing it wrong. I find it's helpful to clarify for students that this uncertainty is an important part of the process and that it's something everyone experiences. I love sharing Carol Kuhlthau's Information Search Process model (http://wp.comminfo.rutgers.edu/ckuhlthau/information-search-process/) with students and having them identify where they're at in the process—and how they're feeling. Knowing that all researchers experience uncertainty can go a long way towards putting students at ease.

When time is in short supply, I use the instructional time I do have to artificially inject time into the process. If the only time I'm going to spend with students is doing a "database demo" lesson, I work with the teacher to pick one skill that we want students to get practice with and merge that with the database demo lesson. I'm also very lucky to have two part-time librarians working with me, which allows us to offer one-on-one research appointments as a follow-up to classroom instruction. Previously, students would come to these appointments "cold," and we would spend most of the time working with the student to determine what they were looking for. This year, we asked students to prepare for the research appointment by finding and documenting a couple sources in advance (see our appointment form at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1C7cP-GWAV3BWiXRjCuzT82W7CihYj0HV9yKmjeinVDU). By having students find sources in advance, they were not only using their time more effectively, but we were also able to emphasize the iterative nature of research and the idea that finding the "just right" source takes persistence.

As librarians, we also need to think about how we can make use of time to be persistent in our teaching of research skills. The paper that gets assigned with two weeks left in the school year will never be the ideal scenario for teaching those skills. But it is the ideal scenario for talking with a teacher about what we see students struggle with and how we can do it better next time. By communicating with teachers proactively, and by collaborating to make use of the time we have, we can get time on our, and our students', side.

About the Author

Sara Kelley-Mudie, MEd, is the director of Southworth Library at Thayer Academy in Braintree, MA. She earned her master's in library science from Kent State and a master's of education in private school leadership from Teachers College Columbia. She is always happy to talk about inquiry, optimism, and/or podcasts.

MLA Citation Kelley-Mudie, Sara E. "Time (Can Be) on Our Side." School Library Connection, July 2019, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2214787.

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Entry ID: 2214787

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