The Jump to High School Research: Active Learning

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I recently asked my daughter, who is nearing the end of her freshman year of high school, what she would have wanted to know at the beginning of this year that she knows now. Her answer? “I needed help learning how to research. That really helped my learning in all classes click.”

This was not what I expected. I expected maybe a note-taking technique or time-management strategy or … I don’t know, a favorite pen? Research is a critical skill, and identifying the need for it is insightful. On the other hand, it seems a dry topic not obviously tied to much of my daughter’s school life this year.

When I asked her to clarify her reasoning, she emphasized that in elementary and middle school, with perhaps a few exceptions, she was asked to supply correct answers to questions or puzzles: label the parts of this plant, define a simile, calculate 8 x 12. She was asked to know something. But when she went to find the telegraph’s impact on the United States after the Civil War … her teacher was not asking her to know something but rather to find a way to figure it out on her own.


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Together, we reviewed the skills she had learned to help her conduct research, no matter the size and complexity of any given assignment. Here’s what we came up with:

  • Obtain general information from Wikipedia, a dictionary, or your textbook.
  • Look for questions that make you curious. Are there, say, “w” words that spark interest? Check out our blog on curiosity for more on this step.
  • Find more general information about the people, places, and ideas related to the main topic. 
  • Ask more and deeper questions: are there stories, parallels, problems, or contrasts in what you’re reading that interest you?
  • Find specific information from Google Scholar or from a research database your library provides, like ProQuest, EBSCO, or LexisNexus.
  • Did your research generate feedback about your learning style, your interests, or what you like and don’t like? For example, were you surprised at how interesting old invention patents could be, or that you care far more about leaders’ personal lives than who inspired them intellectually?
  • If appropriate, find popular sources (for example, blogs, TV shows, podcasts, documentaries, newspaper archives, or magazine articles) that may show how others are talking about the topic now or have talked about it in the past.
  • Do any styles or approaches to the topic shift your thinking about it?
  • Then use the writing process to help you answer questions that arise on this last part of your journey.

Research is Active Learning

In thinking through this process between facts out there in the world and a student’s thoughts, feelings, and interests, something clicked for me: research is not only one important skill among many. Research is active learning. It’s what we do when we have never leased a car and ask questions about whether it is wise to do so. It’s what we do when we have mold spots on our tomato leaves, or debug a server error, or look into market potential. First we’re told and then expected to know. Then we learn how to learn, which requires going from knowing to not knowing, to knowing something new.

So, I suspect my daughter is right. The sooner you take a more active role in your learning by approaching what you don’t know with research skills and guiding questions, the smoother high school is going to go. Research may even help you with something useful beyond grades.

Ryan Warren

Tutor & Creative Director

Ryan is fascinated by sharing ideas with people, and has been doing so with PrepMatters since 2007.

Ryan grew up in Maine, doing the usual Maine nerd things: math club; theater; logic puzzles; playing tuba; going to independent movies; and shamelessly listening to punk rock, hip-hop, and cheesy 80’s pop anthems. You get the idea.

He has a BA in English and Philosophy from Gord...

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