The I-Search Paper: Getting Students Excited about Research

Whenever I teach a research lesson to a class of high school students, I notice the lack of enthusiasm for the project they’re about to start. I find myself working hard to convince them that research is a rewarding endeavor and that the process can be exciting and fun. After I’ve gone through the details of how to use databases and other resources to search for information, I answer any questions they have. Like a thought bubble in a cartoon strip, each student’s question is accompanied by the unspoken words, “How can I get what I need quickly so I can be done with my assignment.” 

Last week, while teaching research lessons to 9th-grade classes, I encountered something different. Maybe I was imagining it (we were on Zoom, after all), but the students seemed more interested in the work that was ahead of them. The reason, I believe, is that their English teacher assigned an I-Search paper, instead of the traditional research paper. Fueled by a topic that interests them, the I-Search paper includes information about their subject, but also catalogues their search processes and pushes them to analyze each step along their research paths. 

The best thing about an I-Search paper is that it allows students to learn about something that is relevant to them. Instead of looking into a well-worn topic, they are generating ideas based on their own lives. According to authors Appling-Jenson, Anzia, and Gonzalez, “The beauty of the I-Search paper is that it fulfills the Common Core Standards while engaging students where they live” (130). Teenagers are naturally curious, even though they may not seem to be at times. Giving them a chance to research some of the questions that float through their minds can help them have a positive relationship to the research process.

Research is an acquired skill, one that is more important than ever in a time of continually flowing information and disinformation. Not only is responsible investigating necessary for finding credible information, but it also serves as a catalyst for critical thinking and analysis, tools that will benefit students in every area of their lives. Some high school students are actively involved in research programs in which they develop college-level abilities that will help them continue on a strenuous academic path. But for average students who are not afforded the extra attention, an I-Search paper can be a motivating factor in setting them on the right course toward inquiry and engagement.

Research Tips for Students:

  • Sweet Search: Instead of using Google, which contains information that is not always credible, use Sweet Search, an academic search engine whose results are vetted by scholars and experts.
  • Google Books: Take advantage of this database of millions of digitally scanned books and magazines from libraries around the world.
  • Works Cited: Open up a blank Google Doc (or Microsoft Word Doc) where you can quickly paste a citation copied from a database.
  • Database Tools: Become familiar with the tools on each of the school’s databases. The most important ones are the citation tool, the date limiter, and the icon that saves an article to Google Drive or your computer file.
  • Search Terms: Practice finding different words or phrases for keywords used in your information search. If you’re having trouble, Google a term to find similar words commonly used to discuss it.
  • Purdue OWL: Explore this comprehensive website that will help you check format, style, and many other areas of your research paper.

Work Cited:

Appling-Jenson, Brandy, Carolyn Anzia, and Kathleen G. 2013. “Bringing Passion to the Research Process: The I-Search Paper.” 130-151.

Author: Karin Greenberg

Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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1 reply

  1. Great article! Self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000) backs up Ms. Greenberg’s observation on the motivating power of student choice. An I-search paper is a great assignment at any time, but perhaps never more so than during a public health crisis which necessarily limits choice options.

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