Students researching online . . .

The Citation Project that Rebecca Moore Howard and her colleagues are conducting has provided some interesting, and troubling, information about how student writers use research.  One early finding, which I’ve written about earlier, is indicative:  the great majority of student writers cite information only from the opening page or pages of a book or article.  In addition, they tend to go from source to source, cherry-picking here and there, without a chance to engage the source deeply.  The Citation Project team suggests that teachers of writing need to spend more time with students on the very basics of research, helping them understand how to read for information, even if quickly, and also how to follow what Chris Anson calls a “discovery thread.”

Now comes a study from a blog on Education Database Online (posted March 11, 2003), sent to me by Allison Morris, who helped to create the graphic containing the study’s findings (thank you Allison!).  This study finds that the Web is both helping and hurting students as they go about research for their college assignments.  Almost all students start their search on the Web, with 94% using Google or another search engine (though only 25% of them could conduct a “reasonably well executed Google search).  Seventy-five percent use Wikipedia; 52% YouTube or other social media; 41 online Cliff Notes or Spark Notes.  Only 12% reported going to a physical book.

Teachers report that online resources make much more information available to students, though many of them point out that the sheer volume of information can be “overwhelming.”  In addition, teachers think the Net makes students “more self-sufficient researchers,” but they are  aware of the pitfalls students encounter, especially when they depend solely on information online.  The study’s overall advice?  They offer three tips to students:  search relevant terms, don’t multitask, and consult your librarian. 

These are tips that every writing teacher I know agrees with.  The old saying “garbage in, garbage out” still holds in the digital age:  teaching students how to conduct an efficient, effective search with key terms is still something we need to take very seriously.  So is alerting them to the dangers of multitasking (this study also found that students using computers in class opened 65 different screens during class, most of which were unrelated to the subject); so far, the research seems pretty unanimous that humans simply can’t do three or four things at once and do them with any facility at all.  About librarians, this graphic says “they know about more than just books.  Your librarian can direct you to helpful online sources.”  Amen.  At my university, students shy away from the library and librarians, preferring to go it alone, with the help of Google.  Unless we teach them, they don’t know that going to online sources via the library opens up many more valuable resources than Google can provide.

At the 2013 CCCC meeting in Las Vegas, I attended a session where panelists debated whether we need to focus on research much anymore.  I came away convinced that indeed we do need to focus on it, and focus hard:  our students need to experience the thrill good solid research can bring, the kind that takes more than a quick one-word Google search!

To see the full graphic and read more about this study, see


Commom Core Standards, and Concerns

If you haven’t been following the national discussion on the Common Core, you may want to tune in about now.  These “standards” for math and English Language Arts, developed starting in 2009 by a group primarily made up of administrators and policy makers, are set to take effect in 2014; some 47 states plus the District of Columbia have signed on to them. 

But recently a backlash of resistance seems to be mounting, and several states (including Indiana) may be pulling out.  One of the biggest points of contention seems to center on the recommendation in the standards that students do more reading of “information” texts.  Many have reacted strongly, charging that a shift to such “informational texts” will mean the end of literature in the curriculum (See the Washington Post’s “Common Core Sparks War over Words” at 

Gerald Graff has responded to critics in another Washington Post piece entitled “It’s the Argument stupid, not the Text” (  Graff (and others) says that those who bemoan the departure of literature aren’t reading the standards correctly and that literature will remain central to the curriculum.  But Graff’s point is that students should do a lot of reading in nonfiction—and particularly of analytic essays—because that is the kind of writing we ask them to produce in response to literary texts.  As Gaff says, “After all, students who study Homer’s “Iliad” are not asked to write another epic poem about the work, but rather an “informational” essay in which they are supposed to analyze the epic and make some kind of argument about it.”  What Graff says is correct right now, but there are plenty of signs that students today want to do more than write analytic essays about literary texts.  Rather, they increasingly want to produce such texts themselves, or to produce parodies, mashups, and remixes of them. 

From where I stand, there are very good reasons to resist wholesale adoption of the Common Core Standards until teachers, parents, and students understand them fully and, moreover, understand the impact they will have in their particular schools.  But the contretemps over fiction vs. nonfiction texts seems to me a tempest in a teapot.  Students today are reading and writing more than ever before, and schools should take advantage of that fact, engaging them in reading all kinds of texts.  All kinds of texts.  And that means blog posts, wikis, social media posts right along with literary and nonfiction texts.  More to the point, they need to have a chance to experiment with writing about such texts, not only in traditional analytic essays but in new genres and media. 

In the meantime, we could do worse than begin a discussion by looking at what the National Council of Teachers of English has to say about standards:

RESOLVED, that the National Council of Teachers of English call upon the Obama administration, the National Governors’ Association, and the Council for Chief State School Officers to support policies that:

*end high-stakes testing and the evaluation of teachers and schools based on students’ test scores;

*support ongoing classroom-based assessments consistent with the NCTE/IRA 2009 Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing;

*evaluate teachers based on comprehensive measures of effectiveness, such as observations of instruction, teacher portfolios, parent response, and increases in achievement as evidenced by curriculum-based authentic assessments;

*promote school/home/community partnerships by valuing the voices of all stakeholders who take part in the education of children;

*support curriculum that develops every student’s intellectual, creative, and physical potential;

            *provide equitable funding for all schools.

Be it further resolved that NCTE:

*publicly voice its critique of and opposition to educational reform policies that mandate standards, curriculum, and means of student assessments that adversely affect social and educational equity;

*reaffirm its commitment to supporting all literacy educators so that pedagogical and subject matter knowledge, as well as an understanding of the school community and students, are primary influences in school and district plans to advance literacy learning; and

*work assiduously to make the wisdom of NCTE members with deep knowledge of effective teaching and assessment practices influential at every stage of curricula, assessment, and standards development.

This position statement, which can be found at, sums up what good, clear standards can do for schools, teachers, and students.  It seems important to me that those working on implementing—or resisting—the Common Core Standards in their states begin by making sure that they match up well to what the NCTE resolution calls for.

Writing to make something happen in the world

I have talked (and written) a lot about one particular finding from the five-year longitudinal study of writing I and colleagues conducted at Stanford (in fact, we are still analyzing data from that Study and will be for some time to come).  As the years of the Study went by, I asked participants to tell me what they thought “good writing” was.  At first, they offered fairly instrumental definitions:  good writing is what gets a good grade; it’s good if it captures what I am trying to say, etc.  But sometime during the second year of the Study, some students started to define writing in terms of its work in the world.  Good

In other words, for them, good writing is performative—it performs work and especially work that is good.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this finding as I’ve traveled the country this winter.  In place after place, I’ve seen students and teachers doing this kind of writing, seen the effects of it in their schools and local communities.  At a recent meeting in Texas, I encountered two colleagues who were embodying what my students told me.  One is a librarian—and have I said that librarians are my ongoing heroes?  They have been on the front lines in the struggle for free access to information, for community access to technology, for the right to privacy, and so much more.  This particular librarian told me about a grant she had written, one that allowed her library to provide after-school sessions for adolescents.  “With adolescents,” she said, “I find that they are resistant to traditional print writing and reading.  But are they ever excited about multimedia and digital writing/reading.”  So she had done some writing to make something happen, and with the grant she secured she is engaging these young people in constructing multimedia and digital texts, using tools available in the library.  So far, she says, so good:  attendance at the sessions has been steady—and is now increasing as some of the students bring their friends along.  Making something happen in the world.

The other colleague is a blogger who is devoted to social justice and to liberal ideals.  She lives in a district that has been gerrymandered to such an extent that there is usually no contest at all in terms of Congressional races.  So she is making it her goal to gather information on the candidates and on the incumbent, information she says is hard to come by given the party-line propaganda machine that is always operating.  And once she has information that is closer to the truth, she distributes it in blog postings, using a pseudonym.  She is building a core of readers, she says, and she is learning to use the Web in ways that assure that her voice gets out there, that there is at least one voice providing fair and balanced information to the public.  Again, here’s a teacher activist who is using writing to make something happen in the world.

I say bravo to these two teachers.  And I would love to hear from you about how you and your students are writing in this performative—and deeply important—way.