A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Tag: research

Questioning foundations: The note card method

We teach what we know. After all, how can you give something to someone that is not yours to give? I think of this today because my sophomores are in the midst of their research papers. We have just finished note cards—well, some of us have just finished our note cards—and we are constructing the outline before writing the first draft. It’s a familiar process and I have been a champion of it for many years.

I champion this process—in particular the use of note cards—because I see it as a scalable method of note taking that allows students to manipulate information from sources in ways outside the organization of the original articles.

A few years ago I heard a colleague question the use of note cards, wondering whether it was just a time-honored thing that we do simply because it was done to us. I jumped to their defense, citing the things I noted above. I liked the way note cards could be shuffled and mixed; how once mixed, the original source became less important than the information on the card; and how, no matter how big your paper got, the method’s process held true. These things, I argued, were things to which students needed to be introduced. Once introduced to the traditional method, they had earned the right to manipulate it to their own whims. They could see the importance of tracking the source, of categorizing information, and separating notes into bites, and if they could apply those methods to an improvised version, then so be it. At least they had seen the underlying principles.

That was my argument, and I am still fairly convinced of it. On my desk is a student’s outline and in the first paragraph she plans to cite three different sources. Shuffling note cards helps her to do this, helps her avoid writing a source-by-source recap of the information she has read.

In my own experience, I have found the method useful on research projects, even through graduate school. The biggest problem I had with it regarded the way it wasted energy in a computer age. I was copying by hand what I was seeing on a computer screen and later typing that information back into the computer—a terrible waste that would not be tolerated in another industry. The problem was not that much better when reading books or paper sources—again I was copying something by hand only to have to type it later. Acutely aware of this, I searched the web during graduate school for a program that would allow me to skip the pen work.

I experimented with note programs, Google Notes, text boxes in Word, and online bookmarks, but was not happy with any of them until I stumbled upon Zotero. I have praised Zotero before, but the heart of my praise is that the program mimics the note card method. With it I was able to use the method I loved without the extra step.

Yet when it came to my students, learning Zotero was not an option. I would have had to teach the students the software, and the learning curve’s steepness and the difficulties with shared computers were substantial enough that it could never be justified.

Thus I have settled into a basic default with note cards. We find our sources online, print them, and write note cards by hand. Then they type their papers. I teach the note cards because I know them, and because I cannot see a less energy-wasting method that teaches the skills I want to inculcate.

Then, while perusing Bruce Ballenger’s book The Curious Researcher for something else entirely, I was attracted to his section on note taking techniques. He describes two methods, neither one involving note cards. In fact, he described note cards in the first edition of the book but refused to include them in the second edition, admitting that

in good conscience, I can’t do it anymore. I no longer believe that 3” x  4” or 4” x 6” cards are large enough to accommodate the frequently messy and occasionally extended writing that often characterizes genuinely useful notes. Little cards get in the way of having a good conversation with your sources.

Clearly, Ballenger is not opposed to the note cards for their waste of energy as much as he is opposed to the way they allow the sources to dominate the conversation. This is certainly a weakness of my students’ work, and with that declaration he attracts my attention.

His first method was a take on the Cornell note taking method, or double-entry journal. With it, students write on the left side notes from their source and on the right side comments on those notes. He calls the comments the “fastwrite response.” I like the idea but cannot see that my students would have that much to say about each of their notes. It also does not solve the wasted-energy problem, as hand writing the notes would be the easiest way to work with the columns unless students did some slick work with tables in Word (something I find unlikely that my students would do well). If this were the only thing Ballenger had to offer, I would probably not change my ways–though I would feel a bit worse about them, knowing his criticism of note cards has merit.

The second method he describes, however, caught my attention. It is a research log where students create an entry for their notes with each source. At the top of the entry they put the works cited citation and the day’s date. Then they head a section, “What strikes me most.” After they have read the entire source, they take 7-10 minutes to write a paragraph in this section. Ballenger again calls this a fastwrite, and he suggests questions the student might ask to get going:

  • What strikes me as the most important thing the author was trying to say?
  • What surprised me most?
  • What do I remember best?
  • How did it make me feel?
  • What seemed most convincing? Least convincing?
  • How has it changed my thinking on my topic?
  • How does it compare to other things I’ve read?
  • What other research possibilities does it suggest?

I like the evaluation of the research that these questions embed in them—students are looking not only at the usefulness of the information, but at the trustworthiness of it.

After the fastwrite section, students write down specific notes from the source, carefully noting the page number for each note. After the notes section, they head a paragraph called “The source reconsidered” and complete another fastwrite.

I admit this method attracts me. It can be used easily with a computer and clearly demands that students interact with their sources instead of copying bland notes onto the page. The initial problem I see is that this method would make it more difficult for students to mix and match their sources when organizing their paper. It puts a lot of pressure on the outlining process, which I suppose could be a good thing, since it makes that step essential and relevant.

If I had a pile of these kinds of notes, I could print them out and lay them before me. Then I could reread them and look for the common subject headings, just like I do with my note cards. With this method, instead of physically moving my note cards, I would have to write the subjects and headings on my outline and then apply some sort of strategy for checking off the notes I had used. Personally, I would be tempted to number my notes and then on my outline jot the numbers of the notes I wanted to use for each section, so I would not forget about one while writing the paper.

The downfall with this method is that students may not mix their sources much, but the upside is that by the time they have completed six fastwrites on three sources, they will be much more familiar with their research than my students have ever been with the note card method.

I do have a few lingering questions and plan to seek input from others. First off, is the method properly scalable? In this I cherish the opinion of my college buddies, who have all completed graduate school. Somehow I doubt they all used note cards for their research, and I wonder if this research log more closely resembles what they did than the note cards.

Also, does this method teach the pieces as clearly as the note cards—the importance of tracking the source and integrating the different sources to make a new statement? Another concern: will students fall into copying and pasting large sections of text they do not comprehend?

Some of these questions I cannot answer on my own, and some I cannot answer without trying the log. I think this year I will try this research log with my freshmen. Perhaps at the end of that unit I will have a better feel for the possibilities of note taking for research.

Ultimately, I teach what I know. In doing so, however, I do not want to hold anything back. One thing I know is that the note card method has weaknesses, so it appears to me that it’s my job as a teacher to learn something new, if something better is available, so I can teach that to students too.

Thanks for reading.


Making critical research a central focus of the classroom

I am not a professional conference attendee. My experience is limited to two South Dakota affairs (a pair of TIE Conferences) and the T+L Conference this past fall, but even in that short experience, I have a decent feel for what the keynoters are saying at educational technology conferences around the country, perhaps because I spent a year gobbling up the blogs of people who seem to make a living flying around speaking at conferences. Whatever the reason, folks are telling us that we need to change and change now. Often it’s a dressed-up, conference version of the Shift Happens video, or a call for a particular strand of  some current big idea in education.

I kind of expected this when I sat down last week to hear Alan November at the TIE Conference. In one small sense, he followed the formula, championing project-based learning by kidding that the instructor should be able to go out for coffee for a half hour and then return to find her students still working, having not noticed the teacher was gone (at the conclusion of his remark I leaned to the person next to me and admitted that my students constantly ask if they could please leave, while I am actually there). In other areas, however, November broke the mold of these change-speakers and used a particular focus that has left me convinced that my practice as a teacher, and the practice of my colleagues, does need to change.

That does not happen easily for me, least of all when I am listening to folks at technology conferences. The only other speaker or writer in education who struck me as this convincing was Cris Tovani, and I found her very convincing–so this is a big deal.

What November did for me was point the emphasis away from the technology and to the information. He calls the technology the plumbing, and information the revolution. That works well enough for me and is not a particularly new insight, but where he gets me is where he applies this idea to the classroom. If information is the revolution, then we should be spending less time embedding technology and more time embedding critical researching skills.

That is the piece that sent me into glee. It strikes me as the angle of importance for technology leadership teams in school districts. My colleagues, for example, are pretty tech savvy. They adapted amazingly well to a rough launch of an online grade book and picked up almost without incident an online calendar to summarize daily class activities. What they don’t know is how to research amazingly well on the web, and that is what November is challenging us to teach our children.

Obviously we have to learn first, and while that is a challenge it seems to me that it is feasible. The feasibility rises from the emphasis on skills instead of tools. In my mind, November’s emphasis avoids communicating the message teachers often receive when talking about implementing technology. That message runs like this: “You have to stop doing what you’re doing the same old way that appears to be working and do it this way because this is the new way, and no one is going to be doing it your way anymore and it’s no use complaining when the new way doesn’t work for you half the time!”  That’s one reason why they hate conversations about technology integration.

With November’s emphasis, we’re essentially telling them this: “You know and I know that our methods of retrieving information are outdated and no one is using them anymore. It’s time to learn how to do it well with the tools that are now dominating the world of information. Then we can do it more often in our classrooms and together we can teach our students how to do it well.” It leaves me singing a tune: “Good-bye technology integration, hello research (information) integration.”

I know others have said similar things (David Warlick springs to mind) but somehow November’s statements resound more clearly with me. Perhaps it is because he has not pitted my old curriculum against a new one, or suggested that the ‘old’ literacy is bad, so much as emphasized how crucial critical research skills are. The old way still applies, it just needs the tweak of the critical eye. And I don’t think teachers will be nearly so resistant when we approach them with the need to teach students skills instead of tools.

Thanks for reading.


Good researchers have magnet fingers, or so it seems

After three blocks of nearly futile searching, a pair of students become testy about their topics.

“I just need something on Rodney King. Not a reference to Rodney King, an actual article about him! I have three note cards and I’m using all my time just trying to find enough sources!”

The teacher sits down at another computer. Knowing the student has been looking through InfoTrac, he begins with SIRS. Three minutes later he walks to the student’s spot and tosses an article onto his keyboard.

“10-year retrospective look at the LA Riots.” He throws a second article on the keyboard: “1992, shortly after it happened.” Then a third: “1992. All from SIRS.”

“Oh. Hm. That was too quick.”

“Yeah. I searched for LA Riots instead of Rodney King.”

“Oh. I guess I have enough on Rodney King anyway.”

“Hey,” pipes in the other student. “I’m still not finding anything.”

“Alright, alright,” mumbles the teacher, wandering back to the computer. He has already spent time with this student looking through sources on Wounded Knee. It is a tricky topic because a movie came out not too long ago and plugs up the searches’ results. After a quick dive into SIRS and InfoTrac, he clarifies a detail with the researcher, “Are you looking for the 1970’s incident or the massacre?”


Two minutes later he dumps three articles on the student’s keyboard. “Argus Leader looking back at the occupation. A memoir of a fella’s trip to Wounded Knee that discusses both, and an excerpt from Russell Means’s book that talks about the occupation.”

“Wow.” The student looks to his classmates next to him. “I just got owned.”

“Me too,” rejoins the first student. “It was way easy, too.”

A third student, witness to the entire scene, pipes in with curiosity, “Could you own me too?”

Laughing, the teacher declines the offer and sinks back into his chair, wrapped in the memory of affable librarians whose fingers were magnets that somehow attracted only the information one needed.


These kids and Wikipedia: They’re out of control!

Concerned Teacher: Kids these days know nothing!

O’Clerk: Well, I wouldn’t say that. They surely know many things you don’t know–but if you’re trying to say they don’t know many things you used to know, then I suppose you’re right. What gets you fuming today?

Concerned Teacher: They think knowledge begins and ends at Wikipedia. Don’t they know how to research? I bet most of them wouldn’t even know how to find something in an encyclopedia.

O’Clerk: Okay, I see your concern, but I think you’re wrong. I don’t think students care about Wikipedia.

Concerned Teacher: Sure they do. Why, just ask them to look something up and see what happens. Lord forbid they go look in a book.

O’Clerk: Alright, alright. Let’s start with your Wikipedia concern before we thrash them for not reading on paper. I would gamble that maybe as many as three-quarters of your students wouldn’t even spell Wikipedia correctly if you gave them a quiz.

Concerned Teacher: Well that’s no surprise, kids can’t spell either! Don’t even get me going about the ways spell check has destroyed our-

O’Clerk: Right. I think I’ll cut you off so as not to get you going about spelling. Instead, I’ll point out that students’ not being able to spell Wikipedia proves an important point: they’ve never typed “wikipedia” into the address bar of their browsers. They don’t actually care about Wikipedia.

Concerned Teacher: But that’s the only place they ever go, so they’re getting there somehow and that’s the real issue here.

O’Clerk: Sort of. You went on that vacation recently to Denver, right?

Concerned Teacher: Yeah, it was my anniversary and we spent the long weekend there. Hadn’t been to Denver in years. It was great.

O’Clerk: So how did you know what to do when you were there? Do you have relatives in Denver?

Concerned Teacher: Not anymore-I just did some looking for restaurants, made a list, and then my wife and I picked according to what sounded good on a particular night.

O’Clerk: How did you make that list?

Concerned Teacher: Googled it, of course–is there a better way to find information about dining?

O’Clerk: No, I don’t think so–not for travelers, anyway. When you got that Google results page, did you scroll to the bottom and dig through the pages upon pages of links?

Concerned Teacher: Are you nuts? I found a good one a couple links down and had no reason to click through that mess. That thing spits out about a half a million hits for any inquiry.

O’Clerk: I agree with you whole-heartedly, but I’ve got bad news for you. You’re no different than your students.

Concerned Teacher: How so?

O’Clerk: You ask them to research something, and they google it. One of the first hits looks promising, and they click on it. Turns out about 70% of the time we do something for school the first thing that comes up in their search query is Wikipedia (obviously my stats are on-the-spot guesses). They don’t even know what Wikipedia is, but they like that they don’t have to click through a half a million web sites to find a basic biography of Ernest Hemingway.

Concerned Teacher: But they don’t know who wrote it! Anybody can post anything on there!

O’Clerk: Tell me about it. I was doing a search for an author who had died recently (David Foster Wallace)–a number of people whose websites I read were lamenting it and I wanted to know more–and I turned to the Wikipedia article about him. It listed the date of his graduation from graduate school as two years after his birth.

Concerned Teacher: See! How can you trust that?

O’Clerk: Well, I wasn’t writing a paper about it. I was just curious, and it told me more than I’d actually wanted to know. That, and I fixed the mistake.

Concerned Teacher: What do you mean, you fixed it?

O’Clerk: Like you said, anybody can write that thing, so I wrote it. I knew that couldn’t be when he graduated, and I signed in and deleted the dates from the biography. I left a note on the edit list so other people would know why I changed it.

Concerned Teacher: Show off.

O’Clerk: Maybe. Or maybe instead of complaining about how dangerous Wikipedia is, I can help make it better.

Concerned Teacher: Like I said, showoff.

O’Clerk: Alright, but I still say students are simply being practical and behaving the same as most of us–using Google and grabbing the first good thing that pops up. If we want them to use something other than Wikipedia, we’ve got to teach them to do something different.

Concerned Teacher: How about using a book?

O’Clerk: That’s fine and dandy to say, but if that’s the sum total of our solution, have we taught them anything practical? Are they going to use books after they leave our classes? Do we use books? Why not teach them how to use the computer better–in addition to teaching them the books?

Concerned Teacher: So if Wikipedia is all that comes up with Google, how do you do it differently? Use something other than Google?

O’Clerk: I don’t know that that is practical. We all use Google for a good reason: it works. Why not teach them what Wikipedia is, so they know when using it is appropriate? After all, I claim they don’t know what it is. Beat it into their brains that they should not be citing Wikipedia, they should be writing Wikipedia.

Concerned Teacher: I like that.

O’Clerk: You’ll also like how they can use Wikipedia but not just use it. Did you know if you scroll to the bottom of the page you can see the outside sources contributors have used to assemble the article on Wikipedia?

Concerned Teacher: A works cited?

O’Clerk: Exactly. Teach your students to mine that list and it sends them to the best sites–sites that have been approved, so to speak, by more than a search engine.

Concerned Teacher: What if those aren’t any good?

O’Clerk: They’ll find that out fast, but usually they’re great. I use them all the time. For example, I have searched for great Hemingway information for years. I have used Nettreker, Google, whatever, and I have amassed a few good resources. But this year I simply went to the bottom of the Wikipedia article on Hemingway and within minutes I’d snagged an archived Time Magazine interview with him and his official NY Times obituary. That’s good stuff.

Concerned Teacher: Sounds like how I used to do research in college–dig through the reference sections of the sources I particularly liked.

O’Clerk: Precisely. I call that good research, and it beats stopping the cart at the WIkipedia station.

Has experimental research offended educators somehow?

Sometimes I like to take comments I’ve made on a discussion board for graduate school and post them to my blog. It’s a way of preserving the thinking I’ve done, since I will lose access to it as soon as the semester ends and WebCT leaves me on the wrong side of the security wall. I wanted to do it again here, because this week in one class we have been discussing experimental research in education, and our professor posed the question, “Why do you think experimental studies are so unpopular among educational researchers?”

I find the question intriguing, especially as I encounter a dearth of good research on the use of my favorite tools of technology – wikis and blogs. Initially, I couldn’t really make any solid guesses on the topic. Even our book didn’t state a solid reason why so much as describe that the bias against it/distrust of it seemed to exist. Judging from comments from individuals in my class, I suppose teachers are often bent against an experimental situation in their classrooms, where one set of students gets the “better” treatment while another does not. I don’t find that objection convincing, however, because if it’s being researched, one does not actually know what treatment is better yet.

Additionally, few things could be worse than the poetry project I assigned to my juniors a couple weeks ago. That thing was a complete disaster and I think I maybe saw a handful of students regress. Someone should have tested their reading skills at the end of the unit to make sure they hadn’t all returned to 4th grade reading levels. In this sense, go ahead and experiment on my students – they’ve already hit the bottom.

The reality is, I “experiment” on my students all the time, and to put some sort of true experimental design on it where I could actually read some kind of valuable and trustworthy result from it would be a vast improvement from the hunches I get.

I think a lot of times the unfortunate difference between teachers that grow better with time is they have better “hunches” than other teachers – they have a hunch about whether something they did worked or not. If teachers could rely on actual experimental data instead of hunches, I wonder how many could increase the rate at which they improve.

Returning to the question of why experimental studies appear to be unpopular among educators, one reason might be that education as an industry seems to pay little attention and give little respect to well designed research. Researcher A might spend a good part of the year conducting some true experimentation; meanwhile, “Researcher” B swoops in with a new program that cites a couple theorists and popular assumptions, and he gets equal or more attention for his ideas. I couldn’t name a colleague who had read research in the last year, apart from maybe a couple who have taken a graduate class. In that sense, no one is listening to the researcher, leaving no payoff. As a contrast, of course, the medical field has true experimentation, but that might at least be in part because doctors are likely to ignore people peddling ideas that are not based in solid experimental research.

Consider my situation: I am a practicing professional in the education industry, and as soon as I finish graduate school, I will have no broad and easy access to peer-reviewed research in my field (sorry bloggers, you have insight, but you don’t count, here). I asked a professor for suggestions about what to do about this after I complete my program, and she suggested finding a journal or two that I particularly liked and joining/subscribing. That’s hardly an adequate approach for our field, I would claim.

In response to my suggestion about making research available to teachers, one of my colleagues agreed but mentioned that even if it were made available, teachers have no time to read it, and the likelihood of adding the reading of research to the task of items to-do seemed slim. She suggested that schools might use some of their in-service time for teachers’ perusal of research, which I think isn’t a bad idea if you could work out the logistics.

Those are valid points, but while I agree that the crunch for time exists and I think the idea of using in-service time is interesting, I am too pessimistic to think we as teachers will receive anything different than the lot we currently hold. Knowing that, I take a harder line concerning what a teacher should do. The reality of teaching is that if a teacher lets it, the job will always suck up all the time available. I can always teach that unit a little better if I spend a little more time on it . . . and eventually there is no more time. I see so many English teachers, to give a specific example, who trim away their days writing comments on kids’ papers, and if they chose to, they could spend a month grading one set of essays or batch of stories . . . but at some point something’s “got to give,” and the professional has to make a decision about what.

In some ways, I suppose I sound harsh, but I grew up watching my mother drag around one of those mega-sized L.L. Bean tote bags full of student papers – every night she’d lug it home, and after she’d spend the weekend working to the bottom, it would fill right back up again. I have vowed not to do that, even if it means I am that much less of a teacher than she is.

Having said this, I think if research were at least accessible, some teachers (and I don’t for a moment think it would be any more than that) might set aside a little bit of time each week to read some research. Maybe it would be at the cost of a few comments on an essay, but I know I personally would be willing to make that trade, because I’m convinced that the reading of the research (good research, of course) would improve my teaching more than another hour jotting a few more comments on essays.