So you want to write a thesis?
As part of Killington Mountain School's academic evolution, the junior class is currently participating in an independent research course designed to both introduce and develop 21st Century analytical research skills. The course, titled "Analytical Engagement and Practice in the Research Process", is a research and writing-intensive course overseen and supported by instructors Shayna Miller, Courtney O’Keefe, and Steven Tuckerman. The class is part of the school's K-term offerings; as a reminder the K-term is a seven week, middle trimester where students suspend their traditional humanities courses and participate in team-taught, cross-disciplinary seminars which are broken up by age level. Each seminar includes reading, writing, discussion, presentation, and critical thinking, and all of the courses have overarching themes. The 9th grade is focusing on Global Literary, the 10th grade is exploring Technology and the Environment, the 11th grade is working on Independent Research and Application, and the 12th grade is learning about Disruption and Social Change.
While all of the courses have the students working on a final product, the juniors have what might seem the most daunting task: to write a well-honed, thoroughly researched thesis. Courtney, Shayna, and Steve have been working with the juniors to help them learn to navigate the analytical research process both independently and collaboratively in an environment designed to foster research-oriented development, personal exploration, and reflection. The class meets in 90 minute blocks, which allows students to work with the instructors to complete much of the research and actual thesis writing in the classroom with both peer and instructor guidance. Courtney explained that the students will utilize the iSearch model research methodology in writing the thesis, which blends research and thesis development with self-reflective personal narrative driven by active student self-assessment of their research skills development and exploration.
The goal of utilizing this methodology is to have students not only learn the skills associated with being analytical researchers, but also to develop skills associated with being analytical, self-reflective thinkers as they reflect upon their own learning and during the research process. To support this, students will utilize current day digital source information and technologies. In addition to on-campus faculty experts, outside resources such as Charlotte Gerstein of Castleton University and Mary Rizos of the Vermont Folklife Center will aid in giving students the support needed to learn the research process, navigate new academic technologies, as well as to assist in the development of other skills such as interviewing. By the end of the course, students will produce a cohesive and analytical thesis paper that demonstrates not only their knowledge of their chosen topic of interest, but also the application of their newly-developed analytical research skills.
O'Keefe shared, "The goal of the course is to aid not only in teaching the research process but also to aid in demystifying the research process. Typically, students feel view conducting research and the subsequent writing of a thesis as a scary, multi-stepped process which is just designed to bring about large amounts of stress and anxiety. What they don’t perhaps realize at the outset is that learning the research, analysis and synthesis process allows them to develop a set of skills that transcend the classroom, skills which all adults utilize in both academic and professional environments on a daily basis. From the ability to research a specific topic efficiently via current technologies to support a thesis idea, to approaching a specific source with a mindful eye to assess credibility, to appropriately giving credit to those whose research one has consulted, adults utilize these skills on a daily basis regardless of context or purpose. By focusing on the research process, the hope is that students will be able to see not only the value of developing these skills, but also the purpose behind acquiring them. They will be able to see the process in a different light, one which makes it manageable without the anxiety and stress that some students typically feel. Once the students are comfortable with the process, the goal is that they will be able to approach all research-based projects with a sense of focus, organization, and efficiency."
Courtney continued, "The iSearch model is a unique model that blends both research and thesis writing with student self-reflection. What is interesting about this type of research model is the self-assessment/self-reflective piece, which makes up the paper’s personal narrative. Students actively think about each step of the process and how they are both learning and applying it. They list their prior knowledge of their topics before commencing the research, and then also what they wish to learn. They reflect on their topics and explore why they are a point of interest for them. They focus on thinking and detailing how they went about researching-- what technologies they use, why they focus on specific sources more than others, why some sources they consulted were more helpful than others, and what aspects of a source made it credible in their eyes, providing justifications as to why. What I like about this is that it really is a great way for the student to detail and describe their journey of research and growth in a way that doesn’t feel like the overwhelming research paper that many would associated with a thesis class. Yes, the thesis is still there. However, it is written in such a way that it is presented as a personal journey, and one which student interest and curiosity can drive through the complete process. In the end, it makes the students more accountable for their learning, both personally and academically."
The group recently traveled offsite to explore the research process at Castleton University’s Calvin Coolidge Library. Reference Librarian Charlotte Gerstein worked with the students in the library. Charlotte’s passion for assisting high school and college-age students in understanding how to research effectively, as well as her natural ability in making the process less intimidating and more user-friendly made her a tremendous asset.
Working closely with Miller and O’Keefe, Charlotte created a presentation which focused on the segments of the research process which typically cause students the most concern: topic selection, source evaluation, research database navigation, and citing sources. Using the University’s library computer lab, Charlotte aided in helping all in attendance navigate the Castleton University library homepage to access research guides, research databases, website activities, and other technologies for each segment of her presentation. Students responded positively to her presentation, finding that parts of the research process which they had heard were difficult or had personally experienced in the past as being difficult were, in fact, more user friendly with the right digital resources and understanding.
As part of a greater conversation about source credibility and evaluation, Gerstein had students navigate and discuss several websites catered to two specific subjects: support for cruise lines and sea turtle conservation. The goal for each grouping was to evaluate the effectiveness and credibility of the information provided, and to rank how many websites in each list were, in fact, credible to use in a research paper. Students actively discussed what they were seeing in each website, talking through their ideas. Across the board, most of the conversations reflected similar thinking and justifications as to whether or not a source was credible. However in a few instances, the students respectfully challenged one other’s ideas. Many students commented both during and after the activity that they no longer viewed this part of the research process as beyond their capabilities, and many felt that they were looking at sources with more scrutiny. They also commented on the critical nature of these skills, which were brought to life as Charlotte showed the class a website which, at first glance, appeared to be dedicated towards the life and history of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his role in the Civil Rights movement. However, upon closer inspection the students were able to see that the website was in fact a white nationalist site dedicated towards spreading racism and hate. Courtney reported that this revelation is one that the students still talk about today in class.
Shayna and Courtney reported that overall, the field trip was a huge success and greatly impacted the class. Students feel more comfortable with regards to the research process and have taken aspects of what they learned from Charlotte’s presentation and have already started to apply it. They are already using many of the research guides, research databases, and technologies shown during the presentation. Small tips like using advanced searches and filtering results have aided in getting initial research off the ground. Charlotte continues to be a presence in the class even after the presentation at Castleton University as she is in constant contact to aid in topic research. Her time and dedication in helping the group to understand the research process is greatly appreciated.
Students in the class shared their thoughts about the Castleton field trip:
Francesca Castellini- "It was great to understand what the research project process will be like, and also to become more familiarized with research keywords when searching."
Aliza Tobias- "Getting advice from someone who works at the Castleton library and knows the research process throughout was a great experience. After this field trip, I feel more confident in my researching and my overall paper."
Honor Brogden- “I have never had the opportunity to learn with someone who works with college kids all the time, which really helped me understand that I will need to continue to use these skills after high school and how useful doing this now will be in college.”
Matt Fryer- "The trip was a wonderful experience that helped with learning how to begin such an important research paper."
Hannah Caldini- "The trip was a great way to learn how to use our many resources and on how to narrow down our topic choices. What we learned will help us in years to come with many more research papers."
PJ Bovaconti- "It was great to see the research process and learn how to become an expert researcher! I hope this will help me start my paper, and I feel very comfortable in the process."
Izzi Nolan - "I am looking forward to use my new knowledge of research when I write this paper! Not only will I use this in my current paper, but I will continue to come back and use these tools for the many papers I will write in my future."
Ethan Maiden- "I would like to thank Charlotte Gerstein for showing me the many steps of research. I did not know half of the things she showed me, and I am very grateful."
The KMS community is looking forward to seeing the juniors' final products when the course wraps up next month. There is no question that becoming adept at the research, writing and documentation process will aid the students tremendously, both as high school seniors and as college students. In addition, becoming experts on a topic about which they are truly passionate and curious is a tremendous asset for high school students, and in the end, may well serve to impact their course of study in college and perhaps even their career paths.