Transforming the Research Unit into Learning for Life

Research and inquiry skills have often been relegated to end-of-year activities to be embarked on once standardized testing is complete and most of the year's objectives have been taught. Many a scope and sequence have included a research unit to be taught in isolation by assigning arbitrary topics. The research unit, for many educators, is a tedious, formulated lesson that does little to actually teach the act of inquiry to students.

Imagine though, if research were taught throughout the school year as a method for learning. If properly taught how to locate, evaluate, and disseminate information students can transform how they learn for life.

To accomplish this we have to begin in the early years by teaching students the basics of research. Kindergarten students are just as capable of inquiry as older students, but the delivery looks different. The teacher must model how to find information, but to create student buy-in the topic must hold meaning for students.

It Starts with Choice

When we research as adults, our endeavors begin with the desire to learn more about a topic that is meaningful to us. We gather information by looking to reliable sources, and we make choices about which information suits our purpose and which information does not. This is how we gain knowledge. We don't typically spend our time gathering information and writing reports about topics that are not relevant to our lives or our jobs.

It seems logical then that we would teach young students inquiry skills by starting with their interests. Interest is the driving force that motivates students to want to seek out information. Teachers and librarians can model this quest for information by simply indulging students in learning about their interests.

Begin teaching research skills at the beginning of the year. For example, when a young student asks a question about boa constrictors because they saw one at the zoo over the weekend make note of their question and keep it in a classroom or library question parking lot or question jar.

Next, when time allows, read the book The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash. Ask students what they learned about boa constrictors from reading the book. Was the original question answered? Read a nonfiction book about boa constrictors and see what their reaction is. Talk about the text features of the nonfiction book. Notice the photographs. Discuss the charts and how big boa constrictors can grow. Ask again if the original question was answered. Continue to model the act of inquiry for students frequently with short mini-lessons aimed at topics they bring up.

Choice is a main factor in increasing engagement. When students are engaged and when lessons have meaning for them, learning will be internalized. It is important that we encourage young learners to pursue their interests and that we model over and over again how to find information that answers their questions.

Transfer the Inquiry Process to Classroom Objectives

Once you have modeled how to find information begin to use this same process when teaching your curriculum. Document questions students have about the material being covered. Model how to find information using databases and other reliable sources. Discuss how to identify quality sources on the Internet. Librarians and teachers can work together in this endeavor. Collaboration lightens the load. Teachers can benefit from the librarian's knowledge and expertise on sources, and librarians can keep track of what is being taught to ensure relevant materials are available.

When students feel comfortable with the inquiry process, teachers and librarians can begin to turn more and more of the responsibility for gathering information over to the students.

It's important to teach students how to tell a quality source from one that might not be so reliable. Teach students how to use available databases and print materials from the library and how to tell if an Internet source is reliable. A general guideline for web-based sources is to corroborate information using multiple sites. Teach students to look for dates, photographs, and author names and to evaluate how the information is presented.

Lessons should be included on how to properly document sources that are used, but this is another task that should be modeled over and over again for students before they are required to do it on their own. Citations can be overwhelming, especially when strict guidelines are imposed. For very young students, model for them how to credit the title of the source and the author. It is appropriate to discuss title pages in books and how to locate the owner of information on the Internet, but it's not realistic to expect a second grader to give MLA citations in their assignments.

Many databases include citations that can be copied and pasted into presentations. This is another reason they are ideal sources of information for students.

Divide Curriculum and Allow Students to Become Teachers

Flipped classrooms are becoming more and more prevalent, and the popularity of incorporating learning opportunities such as genius hour is growing rapidly. Students are tasked with learning about a topic and sharing that knowledge with peers. Students who become teachers are students who retain knowledge!

Present objectives and allow students to choose which topics they are eager to know more about. If an objective isn't chosen, it can be taught as a whole-group lesson or as a classroom or library station to ensure that all material is being covered. Giving students choice encourages them to take ownership of it. It becomes meaningful to them. If more than one student chooses the same topic, allow them to work together in a small group.

Provide students with opportunities to use what they know about gathering information to learn everything they can about their chosen topic and to then put that information into an engaging presentation they can share with classmates. The teacher can interject anecdotes that guide the learning of the material and can facilitate discussions that broaden the understanding of the objectives that need to be taught.

Library Journal File

Encourage Creative Sharing

It's all well and good to conduct research and find answers to burning questions, but what is the point of all of that effort if you don't get to share it with your classmates? Hopefully, we are past the research essay as a means of showing what you know in the classroom. There are so many fun, creative, and engaging ways to present information from videos to apps to 3D-printed models.

Investment in a research topic will grow if students understand that they will be given choices for how to present what they've learned. Choice is once again the key element here. Our brains learn through story and learning is a social act. Students that are allowed to creatively share what they've learned will be more likely to retain the information and internalize the research process as a mode of learning for life. Likewise, students presented with information through engaging presentations conducted by their peers are more likely to retain the information they hear. Librarians and teachers can work together to teach students about the many different platforms for presenting information. There are many free options, and there are many that can be purchased for a nominal fee. Some favorites are:

Chatterpix (

Chatterpix is an iOS app that allows students to turn any photograph into a talking video. They choose where to draw a line, creating a mouth, and record their own voices. The object becomes animated and "talks" with their voice recording.

Seesaw (

This digital journal is an interactive tool that gives students the ability to post their work and comment on each other's posts.

iMovie (

Allow students to turn their knowledge into a movie using one of the preset templates. Everything is already set up for students. All they have to do is plug in video clips and photographs and add text to the titles and subtitles built into their production.

RhonnaCollage (

In RhonnaCollage students can build a vision board for their topic that they can then use to facilitate discussion. They can add text to their photo collage as well to point out keywords and phrases.

LiveBinder (

With this free online organizational tool, teachers can create a class LiveBinder and assign each student or small group a tab to fill with the information they learned. Students can also create a LiveBinder for their project.

YouDoodle (

YouDoodle is available as an iOS app and on Google Play. Students can create works of art to share their research findings.

Create a Model:

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a 3D printer in your school district or through your public library, students can create a model or prototype to share their knowledge about their topic. This is a great choice for a problem/solution inquiry-based project. If a 3D printer is not available students can craft a model using materials from the library makerspace.

Poetry and Song/Rap Lyrics:

Do you have really good writers in your class? Let them create a poem, a rap, or song lyrics to share their information. The rhythm and rhyme will make the presentation memorable for other students and fun for everyone.

Consider Keeping a Library Journal

Library journals have transformed our library program. Students in first through fourth grade keep notebooks in the library that contain reading and writing connections, lists of books they want to read, username and password information for their school accounts and databases, and notes about research and library lessons such as digital citizenship. These journals live in three filing cabinets in the library, but are available for classroom use if the teacher needs them.

The journals serve as a portfolio of sorts as students use them from year to year. They only leave the library when students graduate or move away from our campus. It's fun to pass them out each year and watch students flip through them remembering the lessons they learned in the library and the stories they read and reacted to and to see evidence of their growth as learners.

The journals also serve as advocacy resources for the library because they contain evidence of the wonderful learning happening in the library.

In the beginning, teachers donated one of the notebooks they received from students from the school supply list. After the initial year, notebooks were purchased for incoming first graders using the library budget. These notebooks have proven to be worth the expense.

In Summary

Research and inquiry-based learning can transform how students learn for life. The process starts with giving students a choice about what they learn and how they share what they've learned. Very few adults can remember meaningful details about research essays they wrote when they were in school. The goal was to complete the assignment. There was very little engagement with the assigned topic.

In contrast, students will be motivated to learn if they have some say in what they are learning. They will also be more enthusiastic if given options for creative sharing. This process for gaining knowledge and sharing it with others will become part of how the student learns, and ultimately that is the goal of teaching research skills. Let's do away with the stories of students who dread the research project and create a new narrative for education that involves students who are excited about learning.

Further Reading

Wilson, Edward E. and Joyce Armstrong Carroll. Acts of Teaching: How to Teach Writing. 2nd ed. Heinemann, 2008.

Carroll, Joyce Armstrong, Karla James, Kelley Barger, and Kristy Hill. Guided by Meaning in Primary Literacy: Libraries, Reading, Writing, and Learning. Libraries Unlimited, 2017.

Hamilton, Buffy J. "The School Librarian as Teacher: What Kind of Teacher Are You?" Knowledge Quest 39, no. 5 (2011): 34–40.

Hand, Dorcas, Susi Grissom, and Julie Briggs. "School Librarians Are Teachers First." Texas Library Journal 91, no. 1 (2015): 4–5.

Lance, Keith C., Marcia J. Rodney, and Bill Schwarz. "Collaboration Works—When It Happens! The Idaho School Library Impact Study." Teacher Librarian 37, no. 5 (2010): 30–36.

Morrison, Karin, Mark Church, and Ron Ritchhart. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Joyce, Marilyn Z. and Julie I. Tallman. Making the Writing and Research Connection with the I-Search Process: A How-to-Do-It Manual. 2nd ed. Neal-Schuman, 2006.

Valenza, Joyce K. "You Know You're a 21st-Century Teacher-Librarian If." Teacher Librarian 35, no. 1 (2007): 18–20.

Wray, David. "An Inquiry-Based Approach to Library Instruction." School Libraries Worldwide 12, no 2 (2006): 16–28.

About the Author

Kristy Hill is a library media technology specialist and social emotional learning coach in North Texas. She has worked in education for 21 years at the elementary, intermediate levels as a classroom teacher and school librarian, and at the university level helping prepare pre-service teachers for work in education. Her books include Guided by Meaning in Primary Literacy, Teaching Elementary Students Real Life Inquiry Skills, and Schoolwide Collaboration for Transformative Social Emotional Learning.

MLA Citation

Hill, Kristy. "Transforming the Research Unit into Learning for Life." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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