By Melissa Legate, Pierce High School, Nebraska Writing Project
The research paper. It’s a staple in so many classrooms across grade levels and subject areas. And why not? It asks our students to develop and practice some pretty essential skills: critical thinking, engaging with important and timely topics, locating and evaluating sources, basing ideas and conclusions on expert voices, giving credit to outside sources, writing in a clear and organized manner, and more.
However, research papers can also be fraught with pitfalls that can frustrate students and teachers alike. Despite all our efforts to guide them, students may struggle with finding and analyzing resources for credibility or even citing those sources correctly in the style we specify. Fortunately, there are some excellent tools* out there that can “hack” some of these challenges.
Hacking Source Location: NebraskAccess Databases
Are your students struggling to wade through millions of non-academic search results when they Google their topics? Try directing them to the NebraskAccess Databases. These databases are available (for free!) to all Nebraska residents through the Nebraska Library Commission. There are databases geared toward specific age groups and topics; not only do these databases provide a rich bank of sources, but they can also be excellent springboards for selecting research topics as users browse different sections. This is not to say that Google doesn’t also give our students access to sources containing high-quality information, but these databases are easily searchable, organized, and house some source types that aren’t as readily available on traditional search engines. Plus, as a bonus for both you and your students, these databases will cite the source in a variety of different styles.
Hacking Source Evaluation: mediabiasfactcheck.com
Are your students struggling to discern whether a source they’ve discovered is credible and high quality? Try directing them to mediabiasfactcheck.com. Among other features, this site allows users to search a publisher and receive a detailed report of its bias rating, factual reporting, and funding and ownership. It can also be a great resource for facilitating classroom conversations about bias itself as you explore the site’s analysis of different media outlets and justifications for the credibility ratings it gives them.
Hacking Source Citation: Google Docs “Citations” Tool
Are your students struggling to format in-text citations and reference pages? Try directing them to “Citations” in the “Tools” menu on Google Docs. Like other citation generators out there (EasyBib, Citation Machine, etc.), this helps students build their bibliography using correct formatting–whether you require them to use MLA, APA, or Chicago Style. However, it allows them to do so without having to navigate away from their essay or sift through ads and pop ups. Moreover, this tool will assist students with appropriate spacing, and indentation, and order for their works cited pages. It even helps take some of the guesswork out of in-text citations; all students need to do is place their cursor after the sentence requiring an in-text citation, click “Cite” next to the appropriate source in the Citations menu, and voilà. A correctly-formatted parenthetical citation is inserted. For my students, the introduction of this tool significantly cut down on their number of punctuation and formatting errors associated with citations.
Add these resources to your teaching toolbox for your next research project!
*These tech tools are certainly not a comprehensive list of what is needed to write a high-quality research paper. Of course, there are myriad pedagogical moves that go into preparing our students to do so, but these tools have become must-haves in my classroom for abating a few of the common headaches that may come with assignments of this nature.