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I remember the first time we did a PBL unit and I asked students to fill out a survey on their favorite and least favorite parts. Overwhelmingly, students described dreading the research process. Similarly, when we first used design thinking, students asked me why we had to do research instead of just coming up with ideas and then building our prototypes.

My students hated research and I was okay with it. I viewed the research portion as that bitter kale salad you have to eat before you dive into the main course. It’s good for you, yes, but it’s supposed to be enjoyable. (If you happen to like kale, I sincerely apologize. Just kidding. Kale is gross.) My goal was to make research simple and to demystify the process with solid scaffolding.

But then I had a student who came in one day with a random question. I told him he should go look up the answer and he said, “I wish I could but I  have to do research.”

In that moment, I realized that what I had designed as a scaffolding was more like a cage. This student knew how to do research on his own. And the truth is, he loved research . . . outside of school. I realized, in that moment, that true research is fun. It’s less like a chore and more like geeking out.

Looking back on it, I realized that I had tried to demystify it, but he wanted the wade into the confusion and figure out the answer. I had tried to simplify it but he wanted the complexity. This student wanted to ask his own questions, find multiple resources, and figure out the answer on his own. To be honest, that’s the type of self-directed research people do when they work on projects. So, how do we make research more authentic within a PBL unit? How do we approach it in a way that mirrors the way people actually do research in real projects?


Start with a bigger definition of research.

Looking back on that moment, I realized that I needed to start with a bigger definition of research. I had viewed research as a text-based process, where students ask pointed questions and then find verifiable facts online. However, authentic research is bigger than this. Research is not limited to a library or a set of books or even a computer. It isn’t merely a fact-finding mission, either. Research is what happens any time you ask questions and explore sources in order to make sense of new information. Sometimes it means looking for facts but other times it might involve interviewing people to get a new perspective. Or it might even involve playing around a physical phenomenon to see how something works. Authentic research might involve reading a book, but it might also involve gathering and examining a data set based on a needs assessment or watching a video.

Here are a few of the research methods students might use:

1. Research through Reading

The first research approach involves finding information by looking at text-based documents. This is, by far, the most common type of research in school. After all, the information is available at their fingertips. By searching the interwebz, they can find the answers and grow in their understanding of the information. Still, there is also power in having students access Google Scholar and check out articles that go beyond what they might initially find in a typical Google Search.

It might also mean reading a longer book. We tend to think of research as catching bits and pieces from tons of different sources. However, there’s also value in asking students to take a deep dive into a full non-fiction work. I still remember a moment when a student noticed the book Predictably Irrational on my desk when we were waiting for our bus to arrive for the cross country meet.

“What’s it about?” he asked.

“I’m not sure you’d find it that interesting,” I answered. “It’s about the idea that we tend to make decisions that we think are logical but they’re totally not. And everything we believe about decision-making is wrong. See, there are these patterns . . .”

For the next ten minutes, we talked about the various experiments in the book and what they demonstrate. Later, when we got onto the bus, he asked if he could borrow it when I was finished with it. I had never considered full non-fiction books to be interesting for middle schoolers. My bookshelf was packed with fiction and I frequently went out of my way to try and find books that kids would enjoy. But not a single one was non-fiction.

By contrast, when I was in the eighth grade, I read every single non-fiction book about Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues that I could get my hands on. It was part of a year-long History Day project. The project had created an authentic context where I could ask questions and find specific answers but also immerse myself in the world of new information through tons and tons of books.

2. Multimedia Research

Some of the best information online isn’t text-based. Think of the last time you tried to figure out how to learn something new. Chances are you didn’t limit yourself to text-based answers. You probably watched a few YouTube tutorials along the way. Similarly, if you’re an avid podcast listener, you’ve probably learned about concepts from a different angle by listening to 99% Invisible or Invisibilia or Hardcore History.

Sadly, I’ve seen classrooms where students are discouraged from using multimedia resources. School will completely shut down YouTube because it’s a distraction. And yet, what if students could view YouTube as a resource instead of just watching kids open gifts (unboxing videos) or watching reaction videos? What if they saw it as a place where they could geek out on their world?

Video, pictures, and audio resources make concepts to come alive in a way that reading alone does not. It’s not that multimedia resources are better but that they allow students to see things and to hear things that they can’t see or hear in a text.

If you want to download the 5 C’s student handout to give to students, please fill out the form below:

3. Exploring Data

Another research option involves exploring data. When my son was in the third grade, he got  excited about the plants growing in his classroom garden:

“We recorded our data on graphs, dad. And guess what? Even though the plants don’t seem like they’re growing much, I can prove it with my graph!”

When you think of things that typically ignite the passion of a third grader, data and graphing probably don’t hit your radar. However, it was meaningful research that shaped his experiment.

Students can access tons of data online. But they can also connect with other students in share data, increasing the sample size and finding larger trends. By using a spreadsheet or a Google Form, students can collect data in a connected way and then share their observations both synchronously and asynchronously.

You might have students create a Needs Assessment or a survey and analyze the results.  Or they analyze data in market research before designing a project. They might look at crime rate statistics or climate data. When students learn to analyze data within a project, they grow more statistically literate. Here, they can see the data as being rooted in a real context and they are less likely to feel anxious when presented with data sets and graphs.

4. Conducting Interviews

We typically think of research as something static. Students consume information that has already been crafted in something like a video, book, blog, or podcast. But when students conduct interviews, they are able to ask questions, get direct answers, and ask follow-up questions. It’s a dynamic way for students to learn about a specific topic.

In PBL, this might involve interviewing a specific person who is an expert on the subject. They might talk to a professor who has taught the subject, an author who has written about it, or someone within a certain profession who has inside knowledge. Other times, they might interview a person who has been impacted by a system, idea, or problem.

Their interviews can be face-to-face video conferences, where they can interact synchronously. But this isn’t always realistic. Sometimes the interaction occurs on social media or through email exchanges. I’ve noticed that many experts who might be too busy to talk to another adult will gladly interact with a student and when they do, students gain a more authentic understanding of the topic.

5. Hands-On Research

This might involve playing around with physical items before ideating and prototyping. Here, it often feels less like research and more like play. I remember having students doing research for their roller coaster projects. While the informational texts and the videos were powerful, the best way for them to make sense out of forces and motion involved dropping items, measuring distances, and repeating them. This wasn’t an issue of testing a prototype, either. Instead, it was a process of discovery.

However, this type of research might involve observing natural phenomenon to inspire biomimicry in design. Other times, it might involve watching human behavior. In UX Design, researchers often watch the way people use particular items to increase empathy and have a deeper understanding of how people interact with their world.


Embed Research Into Each Phase of the Project

Although A.J. Juliani and I included a specific research phase (understanding the process or problem) in the LAUNCH Cycle, teachers can embed research in any part of the project process. They might do a short research experience like a Wonder Day before launching into a larger Genius Hour Project. You can also include research in the ideation process by letting students take a break from their brainstorming and clarifying to explore pre-existing products. Instead of leading to copying, this form of research drives innovation, because students have to figure out how their product will be different from what is already out there. During prototyping and revision, students might go back and research how to create certain things. Or they might do market research.

We tend to think of projects as a design process. But authentic projects are both research and development (R&D). And the research doesn’t have to stop once students plan and prototype.

Note that this should feel flexible and unassuming. When writing a blog post, creating a video, or doing a podcast, a student might want to amplify their work with new information. In an engineering project, they might want to fill in a gap that they hadn’t anticipated or looking up how something works. Authentic research is contextual. It’s tied to problem-solving and creativity.


Let Students Own the Process

Authentic research begins with student ownership. It’s what happens when students ask their own questions related specifically to their project. Although you might provide sentence stems or sample questions, they goal is to get them engaged in the inquiry process on their own. But it also means letting them find their own sources and pick out key information. They then organize the information in their own way. When students ask the questions and organize the content in their own way, they learn how to be curators, which is a vital lifelong skill:

I created a student handout for the curation process. Simply fill out the form below and I’ll email it to you:

It’s also helpful to allow students to choose the specific strategies for recording and organizing information. When I first had students do research within a project, I gave students a handout with a research grid. There was a space for a question, answer, and source. I then modeled the strategy I wanted them to use. Later, I changed it to notecards but some students preferred the research grid. Later, I realized that different kids could have their own methods of organizing their research. Some would use a concept map, others would use tables or lists and still, others preferred visual curation or digital notecards. I had some students who preferred sticky notes while others wanted to sketch-note.

A little nuance here. Although we want students to own the process, we also need to teach students information literacy. So, while they might use notecards or grids or sketch-notes, they still need to learn the basic thinking skills involved in finding sources, looking for bias, and determining which facts are most relevant. The following video is an approach I have used:

Student ownership in the research process also means they will share their answers with one another and work collaboratively with the new information.

The Power of PBL to Boost Research Skills

If we want students to be problem-solvers and creative thinkers, we also need them to be researchers. Too often, though, the research is disconnected from real problems, real sources, and real products. The finished product is a report they turn in to the teacher. Often, this happens at the beginning of the year. However, with project-based learning, students engage in authentic research from day one and practice the process throughout the year. They see  the connection between creativity and analytical thinking and in the process, they learn to be curators and critical consumers of information.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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