• Andrew

Lesson Plan: Researching a Kitchen Gadget

I'll confess that I sometimes (always) chafe at the need to teach research in writing classes. I know a lot of people say that research is part of the writing process, but I tend to feel that research is a helpful, though peripheral part of writing. At least, it's not the part of writing that interests me very much. So I resign myself to teaching it while secretly wishing that there was also a general education research course that all my students were taking.

This lesson plan, then, has a few key objectives:

  • To introduce students to the processes of internet research

  • To get students thinking about the quality of sources

  • To give students some practice using sources in writing

  • To make the whole process of learning and teaching library less stultifyingly dull for my students and for myself

As I tend to do with my lessons, this activity aims to help students recognize how much they already know about web-based research and to get them deepening their understanding through an experience rather than an explanation. (Neither they nor I want to spend an hour watching me click through a library database to "show" them how to do it.)

The Setup

At the beginning of the activity, I introduce my students to my hypothetical friend (they have no trouble believing that my friends are hypothetical). This hypothetical, totally-not-made-up friend is in the market for a kitchen gadget because they have gotten into cooking lately.

This is where you can be creative (well, and anywhere else you want to be): you need to pick a type of kitchen gadget for your students to research. I like to pick something that my students likely won't have in-depth experience with already so that they can't just rely on their previous knowledge (this is about research, after all). I usually pick something like a bread machine, but I've been setting up the scenario around immersion circulators lately to good effect.

Anyhow, my hypothetical friend has some specific needs (a modest budget, not cooking for large groups, etc.) and wants help knowing which gadget to purchase. It is up to my students to do some research and to make a recommendation to my friend based on their research.

The Tasks

  • In small groups, do some internet research to find the best bread machine (or whatever) for my friend's needs

  • Compose a letter to my friend recommending your chosen gadget and explaining why, based on your research, you believe this particular gadget is the best fit

The Activity

At this point, I turn the student groups loose to do their thing, reserving some time at the end of the class to discuss their experience and decide as a class which gadget to recommend to my hypothetical friend.

In order to help make sure that my students stay on track, I ask them to email me a copy of their group letter when they finish it. It could count for participation points or just for the satisfaction of practicing a skill.

If your experience is anything like mine, you'll have great dreams that your students will do in-depth research, find reputable reviews from Consumer Reports or something, and then write a carefully worded recommendation letter. They probably won't do that, opting instead to write something like Pick product X because it has the most positive reviews on Amazon (sort of like how you might hope they cite an article from the research database but end up citing HuffPo instead...). You could deal with this in one of two (or probably more) ways:

  1. You could take a deep breath and realize that this is just an introductory activity and that there will be time to develop more sophisticated research skills.

  2. You could prompt your students that Amazon reviews are a good place to start, but they should consider looking at kitchen equipment reviews on other websites.

Whatever you decide, after you've given your students appropriate warnings about how much time is remaining and they've all turned in their letters, it's time to discuss the results.

The Concluding Discussion

Once my students have practiced some initial research, selected their preferred product, and written a research-backed letter of recommendation for that product, I like to spend some time discussing their experience as a way of checking in with their work and also of rendering some of their implicit knowledge explicit (so that they can take some useful principles with them moving forward). The discussion is generally contingent on what students report, but here are some questions that I often end up asking to help my students think more deeply about their introductory research experience:

  • How did you start? What was the first thing you did?

  • What search terms did you use? How did they evolve as you gathered information?

  • How did you decide which reviews to pay attention to? Where did you find information you could trust? How did you decide which sources to cite in your letters?

  • Describe the process of composing your letter. How did you incorporate sources? How did you address my friend's particular criteria?

  • What questions do you have about the research process at this point?

  • What did you learn that will help you moving forward?

To conclude, I like to draw my students' attention to any research skills we didn't address in the discussion. I then explain that many of the skills they already have for research products online will are directly applicable to academic research. The only real difference between shopping research and school research is where they do it. With all that in mind, I encourage them to prepare for future practice with library databases and some more academic-specific research strategies in future classes.