Books vs Google: The Benefits Of Researching Via Physical Text

contributed by Jane Healey, Ph.D.

Teaching research is extremely complex, and the process must be taught to students at every step.

Inserting technological tools because they are easy or convenient is fabulous as long as the tool does not obfuscate the learning. Many fancy programs exist for students to ‘manage’ research projects. These tools offer note-taking options, citation methods, and other seemingly key ingredients for a thoughtful research project.

Unfortunately, many apps fool students into believing they fully comprehend the material they’ve located, they have organized a flowing narrative, and their citations are accurate. The miracle-working software lacks a key factor that dinosaurs like me grew up on—the physicality of working with multiple sources in front of us at the same time.

Who remembers shelf browsing—the peripheral vision that took in the row of books in a Dewey category related to our topic? Flipping back and forth between documents one at a time on the screen or squeezing several documents on one screen doesn’t give students the ideal research environment in which to learn. They lose the shelf browsing mechanism: seeing a range of knowledge and situating their project’s likely results in the range.

To the chagrin of IT departments and environmentalists everywhere, I have a rule for students when they find a great document: Hit print.

The hard copies provide students with raw materials for a simple sequence of steps: analysis, organization, prioritization, and the formulation of an outcome. Here’s one path of the process using paper in ways electronic copies can’t and don’t function.

See also How 21st-Century Thinking Is Just Different

They Can–And Should–Mark The Text

We all know students need to be active when they read, though I mean both physically and mentally. The best way to encourage them is by emphasizing the need to write all over the page—highlighters, colored pens, pencils, even crayons.

The kinetics of circling, underlining, drawing arrows, jotting notes in margins, and other physical actions while reading help the knowledge get into a student’s short-term memory—the first stop along the train to absorption. Also, the rhythm of reading and pausing and reading and pausing pushes students away from the monotony that sets in when they “read” more than a few sentences. We all know the glassy, blank stare; the visage of reflection and notating is a fabulous sight.

I know many teachers like to instruct a specific note-taking system, but for older students being flexible about the methods for marking up documents yields goodwill. I’ve seen girls with color-coded systems, boys who doodle in shorthand, and both genders with multiple versions of arrows. I often negotiate a deal: I won’t force a method on students, and in exchange, the students must notate.

They Dwell Longer With Text

After students have curlicued the printouts, they can arrange the sheets on a surface in front of them. I ask for a brief overview of findings—an oral annotation so to speak. They can recite to a small group, a partner or the whole class.

Frequently, students point to and pick up the sheets as they talk. These behaviors offer them an insight into which sources were most valuable, which passages they want to quote, and how the sources connect to each other.

See also How To Teach Students To Research Without Google

If the students can’t sort out an organic sense of themes, listeners often echo patterns they heard with a standard opening phrase: “I heard you refer to the uses of that compound several times” and “I heard you say oxygen more than once.”  The interaction with an audience gets students out of the vacuum in their own brains and forces them to articulate knowledge long before they create a final outcome.

Afterward, the kids need to clean up, so I ask them to stack the sheets up as a packet. The order they place sheets on top of each other intuitively helps them grasp an organization and prioritization of their findings and thoughts.

Plagiarism Is More Difficult

I’m a beast about ‘borrowing’ from sources without credit because I view the action as stealing. I find that forcing the students to use paper leads to fewer infractions because they can’t simply click, cut and paste passages from a text into their work. They need to type the section into an essay or other outcome, so paraphrasing becomes a necessity. While they grumble, I seize the moment to instruct the class on effective ways to rephrase.

Also, many sites and apps offer to provide the students with accurate citations. I’m laughing as I type that sentence. The computer rarely gets it right, because students often need to input data into the correct boxes, and they don’t. Also, the software isn’t well versed in the three academic styles commonly used: MLA, Chicago, and APA.

After trying—and failing—with multiple tools that create citations for them, most students realize it is vastly easier and faster to type their own than inputting data correctly or altering format that the site didn’t get right, or fixing the odd gray haze they can remove (they never believe me that it’s there to show they cut and pasted).

Reduced-Scale, Increased-Intensity Collaboration

This is a great trick to play on students, and many of them love me for it. After students have verbally walked through their findings, I assign a brief PPT to share with the class, so that peers can offer suggestions and ask questions about unclear parts. Brief to me equals no more than 8 slides, no more than 10 words per slide (including titles), and a relevant visual element on each slide (the multi-modal component). The students create the slides with their packets.

This assignment is a great case where a technological tool serves the purpose of students learning a critical research skill. The slides are virtual notecards, and the students create an outline of their final outcome. Most figure this out midway through the creation of the presentation, while others enjoy the epiphany when they move on to the final assessment.

The icing on the cake is the feedback from their peers during the brief and less formal presentation. Questions and comments can be recorded in the ‘notes’ section at the bottom of each slide. Students gather insight from an audience about the reception of their ideas before they construct an official result. It’s like a revision on a draft!

I love teaching research while most of my colleagues dread the prospect. Meeting frustration with, “How did I learn that skill?” requires patience and yoga breathing.

When in doubt, slow down and simplify. Paper and pen was once a huge technological innovation, too.

Other Benefits Of Researching Using Books And Physical Text Instead Of Technology

Less dependence on Google’s algorithm to find credible information

Research can be done more slowly and thoughtfully (though there’s no guarantee this will happen)

Physical texts can be used intentionally to complement digital research. Students can, for example, begin the research process by selecting from a small collection curated by the teacher (or groups of students and approved by the teacher), then move to digital research. Or vice-versa.

Teaching Research: What Happens When Students Research With Physical Texts; Image attribution flickr user teo and gammarayproduction