This research was developed to understand more fully the unique opportunities and challenges facing today’s middle and high school teachers in training students how to write and “do research” in a rapidly evolving digital environment. In particular, the study was designed to explore teachers’ assessments of students’ research and writing habits, the broad impacts of digital technologies on their students, and the extent to which teachers incorporate digital technologies into classroom pedagogy, particularly for teaching research and writing skills. This study builds on prior Pew Internet research on the growing use of search engines and mobile tools to gather information, the rise of social networks and texting, and the increasingly immersive digital world in which today’s teens live.
The study was designed to collect middle and high school teachers’ views of many aspects of the current role of technology in the classroom and in teens’ research and writing practices. The findings will be summarized in a series of three reports, issued in succession. Broadly, the three reports will be guided by the following questions:
Report One: How Do Teens ‘Do Research’ in Today’s Digital World?
- How students define and conduct research in today’s tech environment
- If and how new technologies are changing how research is taught
- Whether and how the topics of digital literacy and information literacy are currently being taught in schools
- What are the key skills students need to learn to conduct effective research given today’s digital environment
Report Two: The State of Teen Writing in Today’s Digital World (forthcoming)
- The specific impacts of digital technologies on student writing skills and habits
- If and how new technologies encourage student collaboration, creativity, and personal expression
- If and how new technologies are changing how writing is taught in middle and high school classrooms
Report Three: Teaching and Technology (forthcoming)
- How teachers experience and manage digital access issues among their students
- The different ways digital technologies are being incorporated into classroom pedagogy
- School policy and resource issues affecting teachers’ abilities to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms
- Potential changes in assessments, curriculum, and the school environment teachers feel are necessary in response to today’s evolving digital environment
- Whether and how new technologies enable and enhance teacher professional development and collaboration
- Teachers’ personal use of and attitudes toward different digital technologie
Pew Internet’s prior research on teens
This report follows prior research conducted by Pew Internet in partnership with the College Board and the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools and Colleges. In 2008, Pew Internet collaborated with the two organizations to study the writing habits and practices of teens. At that time, focus groups with teens and a national survey of teens and their parents demonstrated that while teens were heavily embedded in a tech-rich world and were crafting a significant amount of electronic text, they saw a fundamental distinction between their electronic social communications and the more formal writing they did for school or for their own purposes.
This study also builds on Pew Internet’s extensive research on how children ages 12-17 use the internet and other digital technologies more generally. Since 2001, Pew Internet has released a series of reports on teens’ digital lives, including online content creation, the use of social networking sites, the rise of texting as a central communication form, teens’ online privacy management, video gaming, distracted driving, and most recently, digital citizenship. Over the past decade, Pew Internet’s teen research has shown just how deeply the internet and digital technologies are woven into teens’ lives.
This study is Pew Internet’s first extensive examination of teachers’ perceptions of both the positive and negative impacts of this rapidly evolving technological environment on middle and high school students, particularly on their writing and research habits.
Pew Internet’s prior research on how adults find information online
The current study also builds on Pew Internet’s research on how U.S. adults locate and assess information online. Over time, Pew Internet’s surveys of adults have consistently shown that search engine use tops the list of the most popular online activities, along with email. Currently, 91% of online adults use search engines to find information on the web, up from 84% in June 2004. On any given day, 59% of those using the Internet use search engines. As early as 2002, more than eight in ten online adults were using search engines, and as noted in an August 2011 Pew Internet report, search is only rivaled by email both in the overall percent of internet users who engage in the activity and the percent of internet users doing it on a given day.
Most recently, a February 2012 survey of 2,212 U.S. adults ages 18 and older finds that not only are adults increasingly reliant on search engines as an information resource, but they also generally trust the results they get and feel the quality and relevance of the information provided by search engines is improving over time. Specifically, 66% of adult search engine users say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information and 55% say that the quality of search results is getting better over time. Another 86% report that they learned something new or important using a search engine that really helped them or increased their knowledge.
Information goes mobile
Finally, this work builds on Pew Internet’s extensive trend data on the growing use of mobile devices, particularly cell phones, as both communication- and information-gathering devices. The most recent data indicate that among adult cell phone users, the reliance on these mobile devices for “just-in-time” information is steadily growing. A March 2012 survey of U.S. adults finds that 70% of all adult cell phone owners had used the device in the past month to get a needed piece of information—including 35% who had used their phone to solve an unexpected problem and 27% who used their phone to settle an argument they were having. Overall, these “just-in-time” adult cell users comprise 62% of the entire U.S. adult population.
Given these findings, the current study explores the role search engines and mobile devices might play in how teens today conduct research and evaluate information, as well as teachers’ own use of search as an information gathering tool. Without question, search engines and mobile devices have changed the way information is accessed, shared, and perceived. How these trends are impacting the research habits of teens today is a central focus of this work.
Part II: The Mixed Impact of Digital Technologies on Student Research
One of the core topics addressed in the study is the degree to which the internet and other digital technologies are shaping the way today’s middle and high school students “do research” and define what “research” is. Overall, survey and focus group findings suggest that teachers view the broad impact of the internet and digital technologies on the research process positively. Yet, they give their students modest ratings when it comes to specific research skills and note deficits that need to be addressed. According to the teachers in this study, the impact of the internet and digital tools on student research habits and skills is multifaceted and complex; opening up a vast world of multi-media resources, yet also requiring students to dig through this cornucopia to find credible and salient information. This duality was best captured by a focus group participant who said, “The internet makes doing research easier….easier to do well and easier to do poorly.”
Teachers characterize the overall impact of digital technologies on student research skills as “mostly positive” but observe mixed
Asked to assess the overall impact of the internet and other digital technologies on students’ research habits, just over three-quarters of survey participants (77%) say the impact has been “mostly positive.” Just 23% say it has been “mostly negative.”
Teachers’ perceptions of the impact of the internet are fairly consistent across the full sample, yet some small differences emerge across subgroups. For example, older teachers and those teaching in rural areas are slightly more likely than others to see the overall impact as mostly positive (see table below). Likewise, middle school teachers (those teaching grades 6-8) are slightly more likely than high school teachers to describe the impact as mostly positive, as are math teachers relative to those teaching other subjects.
Conversely, teachers in large urban centers and metropolitan areas and those who describe their students as coming from mostly lower income households or living below the poverty line are slightly more likely than those teaching in most other community types to say the impact of the internet on student research skills has been mostly negative.
While on the whole the teachers surveyed see “mostly positive” impacts when it comes to how the internet is shaping the way their students conduct research, the teachers’ responses to a series of assertions about specific potential impacts the internet may have on student research reveals mixed views about technology’s effects. On one hand, virtually all teachers surveyed (99%) agree to some extent with the notion that the internet “enables students to find and use resources that would otherwise not be available to them.” This includes fully three-quarters (76%) who “strongly agree” this is the case. A majority (65%) also agree with the idea that the internet “makes students more self-sufficient researchers who are less reliant on adult help,” though only a small portion “strongly agree” with this statement (18%).
While majorities of these teachers see the internet broadening available sources to students and encouraging their self-reliance, 76% of teachers also “strongly agree” with the notion that “search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.” Another 23% “somewhat agree” with this statement, indicating it rings true to at least some degree with virtually all of the teachers surveyed (99%).
Large majorities of teachers also agree to some extent that “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming for most students” (83%) and that “today’s digital technologies discourage students from finding and using a wide range of sources for their research” (71%). Fewer teachers but still a slight majority (60%) agree with the idea that “today’s digital technologies make it harder for students to find and use credible sources of information.”
Looking at how subgroups of our sample responded to these items, some interesting differences emerge. Teachers in rural areas are particularly likely when compared with teachers in other types of communities to “strongly agree” that the internet allows students to find more resources than would otherwise be available (82% “strongly agree”). Teachers whose students live in households with incomes below the poverty line are particularly likely to agree that the internet allows students to be more self-sufficient researchers (25% “strongly agree”). The table below shows which subgroups of these AP and writing teachers are particularly likely (or particularly unlikely) to “strongly agree” with each item.
Most teachers see digital technologies fostering deeper learning and expanded worldviews
In a separate survey question, AP and NWP teachers noted additional positive influences they see the internet and other digital tools having on student learning. A majority of teachers “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that the internet and digital technologies encourage learning by connecting students to more resources about topics that interest them (31% “strongly agree,” 59% “somewhat agree”), enabling them to access multimedia content (24% “strongly agree,” 52% “somewhat agree”), and broadening their worldviews (23% “strongly agree” and 49% “somewhat agree”).
Teachers’ perceptions of these impacts vary, particularly across grade level, the socioeconomic status of students, and the subject matter they teach. Middle school teachers (teaching 6th-8th grade) and those whose students live in the lowest income households are particularly likely to “strongly agree” that the internet connects students to topics that interest them, that multimedia online content immerses their students more deeply in those topics, and that overall, the internet helps expand their students’ worldview. Math and science teachers, in contrast, are the least likely to see these impacts.
The perceived impact of the internet on student research, in a word
The survey posed two open-ended questions asking this group of AP and NWP teachers to reflect on what they see as the “most positive” and “most negative” aspects of students being able to conduct research online. Teachers’ coded responses are represented in the graphics below, with the size of each word reflecting how frequently it was mentioned by respondents. Each graphic is accompanied by some examples of teacher responses to these questions.
The former question asking for the “most positive” aspect of online research elicited many comments about the openness and accessibility of online information. The latter questions asking about the “most negative” aspect drew mainly responses concerning the ease of copying and pasting information and concerns about students’ ability to judge the quality of online information.
“ Overall, what would you say is the most POSITIVE aspect of students today being able to conduct research online?”
Students have quick access to some of the best available research online, especially if they have access to databases and are taught how to use them to do research. Also, when students do come across information they don't understand in the course of research, the internet allows them to conduct quick, tangential searches to learn needed information in support of their primary search.
The near infinite possibilities for information retrieval makes for animated research!
Students are WILLING to research online because things are easier to find with search engines. Researching with books, journals, etc, is more tedious and time-consuming. Students are not willing to put in that kind of time and effort.
It is instant gratification. Visuals usually accompany the research.
Ability to quickly find information from the comfort of ANY physical location
Students are able to access a great deal of information, from a variety of sources. Also, we don't have the
Easy accessibility to a variety of sources and access to things like museums or archeological sites worldwide they would most likely not be able to travel to on their own.
Students have more access to a wider variety of content in multiple media formats. So they are exposed to a more well-rounded balance of perspectives that engages their critical thinking skills and allows them to
Students can use the world-wide-web as the best library ever built and as the largest public forum. They can read articles of every opinion and often discuss those opinions on the same page.
In a rural county such as I teach in, access to information from the internet is essential. Without it, my students would be way behind suburban school districts.
Information is immediately available to them and they don't have to go anywhere physically to obtain it. In my area of foreign languages, they are able to access foreign newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc. and it is in real time and authentic language. This is a huge improvement over the past when we had to wait for authentic materials to come in the mail - or bring them back from Europe.
If students have access to the internet and will take the time to do the research it lessens the gap, in other words all students have equal access to the information and it is portable.
“Overall, what would you say is the most NEGATIVE aspect of students today being able to conduct research online?”
Same as the positive! They have access to a seemingly endless amount of information, and they can get to it quickly. They don't know how to filter out bad information, and they are so used to getting information quickly, that when they can't find what they are looking for immediately, they quit.
It becomes the sole method for gaining information. Even direct observation skills whither because everything is viewed on-screen. Information becomes something to be received from someone else. Cheating is so similar to doing online research that it becomes easily justified. Why does a student need to engage in learning if it is easier, faster, and more fun to play with a phone?
Plagiarism has increased, and the ability to search for the answers online instead of learning how to complete the problems or assignment using their own abilities.
Students cut and paste without reading or evaluating the information.
Speed is their objective, not quality.
Students have difficulty sorting through all the information that they access. Because of the opportunities for leading the student to other subjects I think that students many times become diverted to other topics and have difficulty staying focused on the current work. Also students have trouble with documentation of the sources of their information.
Students have become more lazy about research, relying on the first selection of sources, rather than digging deeper into subject matter.
The speed at which they can find information. I have students that do not want to open a textbook set in front of them because it is "too much work" they would rather take out their phone and Google.
They click on the first Google link that comes up. They rarely look farther down, or at subsequent pages. They don't judge the quality of the info they find. They have lost the ability to do any non-internet based research.
They can find information quickly and independently but they do not have the evaluative skills to determine if the information is accurate, they do not have the patience or determination to check the information with an alternate source (second opinion) and when we spend time in class using the internet to do research, they assume once they've found a site, they can print and be "done" when in reality they should print and read, think, analyze, and reassess whether they will need more or different information. Students also have a very hard time reading on-line for extended periods of time. They get distracted so easily with the computer screen as opposed to salient, extended reading in books/texts.
Inability to use a library - digital or otherwise.
My school district does not come close to supplying students with the digital technologies, or, more importantly, the district does not support them in any way in learning about how to judge the reliability of sources, how to maintain a responsible online presence, how to work with different content online, etc. The students are basically on their own. As a result, I see students using unreliable sources and I also see a gap between students who have access to the internet at home and those who do not.
In focus groups, teachers expanded on their views of the positive aspects of students conducting research online
The focus groups presented teachers an opportunity to talk in more depth about the impacts they see the internet having on their students’ research practices. Among the benefits of these technologies, focus group participants noted how the internet provides students with much greater volume, depth and breadth of information than was accessible to prior generations. Several teachers pointed out that not only is more information available, but it is also available in many different formats, which can be extremely beneficial for students with different learning styles and even cognitive abilities. Moreover, many see the combination of text and images on the internet “bringing to life” the subjects their students are interested in, in ways that prior generations did not experience.
Focus group participants also noted how they see the internet making the research process for students easier and more accessible because students are generally familiar with finding information online in their daily lives and do not find research assignments as mysterious, daunting, or difficult. The hope expressed by some teachers is that these tools make “doing research” more palatable and even enjoyable for today’s students, fighting what some see as potential apathy in this area.
Our students are in that weird stage in their academic careers where they’re getting used to more rigorous work, and…there’s some apathy going on among the students. And if it weren’t for the Internet and the ease of access to information, they wouldn’t be going to the library looking in books…So the Internet is good, something that they’re familiar with that’s easy and accessible for them, and I don’t think without that we’d get much in terms of them doing any kind of research at all. –Teacher at College Board school
I think this aspect of education is changing for the better. Having more access more of the time to information means that "research" does not have to be a weighty, ugly word to students. "Research" can (and should) occur all of the time in many classes and not just in an isolated context. Writing and researching synthesize nicely—researching is another way of saying a "more focused reading"...I'm trying to promote the use of various digital tools to pull in articles and information of interest. – National Writing Project teacher
Well, they’re familiar with it and it’s easy to go on the Internet and most of them have access, so that’s a positive for us. Anything that we can say, it won’t be too difficult for you to go out and do this; it gets done. If you were more of a process, like when I was in college, you had to go to the library and look at microfilm, they would never do that. So, I don’t think so. – Teacher at College Board school
Technology has really helped teach research skills, it makes it easier to find information, Word 7 has made citing and building a bibliography a million times easier than it used to. Just as in my time in high school, very few students want to do a research project. But technology does make it easier to complete the projects and create a professional document/presentation. – AP Biology teacher
Many teachers also suggested that because the internet is “open 24 hours a day,” it is much easier for students to fit research assignments into their busy schedules. Because it is possible to conduct research from virtually any location at any time, given the right device and internet accessibility, learning is now a 24-hour process that students can engage in whenever they wish to.
Teachers in the focus groups also raised potentially harmful aspects of online research
At the same time, teachers in the focus groups noted that access to these technologies have some drawbacks when it comes to how students conduct research. Responses were wide-ranging, but several themes emerged:
Students may accept the veracity of online information too easily. A pressing concern for these middle and high school teachers is some students’ tendency to accept the first information they find through online searches without verifying that the information is accurate or reliable. A core concern in every focus group was that online information is often inaccurate and biased, and that middle and high school students do not have the skills necessary to identify the most credible information. A major challenge teachers cited in teaching effective research skills is getting their students to look beyond the first link in the search result list and to “dig” for high-quality, reliable, and accurate resources. Some teachers noted a perception among some students that "because it's on the Internet, it's right.” Moreover, a common litmus test used by students to confirm the truthfulness of information is finding the same information in several different places online; both teachers and students acknowledged in focus groups that this is a commonly used strategy among students.
As said before, students struggle with critically evaluating information. They believe everything that is out there is true and they don't question anything. – National Writing Project teacher
Students are willing to accept the first answer, even if it seems implausible, simply because they want to be done looking. So there must be a willingness to accept that the first answer may not be the right one…As for student's receptivity [to dig deeper], well, as with all things, it varies from student to student. Some are willing to dig deeper and become better for it; others simply go along with it because it's what you're telling them. Still others actively oppose the effort because you're making them work. – AP US History teacher
It’s interesting the methods they use, which I’m sure you all know, which is looking for sort of duplicate information at several sources, the net tells them it must be right because they’re finding it in multiple places and so we’re hearing from them, I think they have confidence there. – Teacher at College Board school
Today’s students are not skilled enough at thinking critically about or synthesizing the information they find online. Many teachers expressed the idea that today’s relatively “easy” online research process can result in fewer original thoughts, less critical thinking, and not as much actual synthesis of information on the part of their students. They point out that students can—and sometimes do—copy and paste information they find online directly into documents, without adequately thinking about it. This not only raises obvious concerns about their understanding of concepts such as plagiarism and fair use, but also worries some teachers that students are not developing adequate ability to think critically about the information they find and what it means vis a vis other information.
Many students do not know how to conduct accurate scientific based research. Many students go to Wikipedia or like sites when researching. They also do not understand the importance of learning about the topic in which they are researching. They find one site, minimize and write their paper as they read the information. The internet has made gathering information instantaneous and way too easy to plagiarize. I find that the technology has many positive aspects and if students learned, or wanted, to take the needed time to really conduct research it could be an amazing tool. – AP Biology teacher
Students generally think of ‘research’ as looking up a topic using the minimum number of resources required for the assignment and then paraphrasing (if they're not outright plagiarizing) what they say. While looking things up on the Internet has made research so much easier for students, it is also harder for them to ‘sift and winnow’ out the garbage, and assignments need to be carefully designed to encourage students to process the information for new understanding rather than for regurgitation. – AP Chemistry teacher
Past generations might have been more thorough for their context, but the amount of information that was available and culled through in the pursuit is nothing like it is today. Yet, present generation students still struggle to pursue research beyond the surface levels of superficiality. That probably has remained consistent. In some ways the greater availability of information has actually made for more complacency. Superficial research is so much easier than in the past, so at an introductory level today's students are quick but not necessarily thorough. – National Writing Project teacher
Students are becoming too reliant on the internet in lieu of other valuable sources of information. Focus group participants repeatedly voiced concern that the internet, rather than being one of many research tools students rely on, is becoming the only tool some students use. While many teachers said that online search engines are a good starting point for student research, they would also like to see their students utilize more effectively other resources such as library databases, books, and journals. Some expressed the concern that students may be losing the ability and/or inclination to use sources other than search engines, which may be better suited to the particular topic or question they are researching. Several focus group participants suggested that some students are so reliant on the internet and search engines that when these tools are not available, or information cannot be found easily online, they are at a loss about where to look next. Further, in the experience of these teachers, some students work from the assumption that any information they need can be found online, quickly and easily. If information the student needs does not appear on the first page of search results, they see some students stop looking for appropriate material out of frustration, use less suitable information that is more readily available, or assume that the information does not actually exist. Thus, while on the whole teachers acknowledged the benefits of a broad base of information being quickly available via the internet, many also said they would prefer to see tools like Google used as only one of many different types of sources.
When it comes to thoroughly researching an idea or assignment, students don't dive deep into research and again, don't ask questions like, "Is this a valid source of information?" Students rely too much on the internet to find answers to questions and to find information. As a result, when there comes a time they can't find an answer, they don't know what to do. Students are losing problem solving skills. – National Writing Project teacher
I'm still trying to "train" my 9th graders to judge what sources of information are trustworthy and valid. One thing I'm still perplexed about is how they will forsake their textbook, which contains exactly what they need to know, for Google which may have some inkling of what they want to know. Why are textbook so "not" cool anymore? – National Writing Project teacher
I believe that almost all of my students equate research with using a search engine on the internet. This turns out often not to be effective research because their search parameters are not clearly defined, they are not sure what they are looking for, and have a hard time distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources. – AP US History teacher
Conducting research online can present too many distractions for students, preventing them from fully focusing on the task at hand. In focus group discussions, some teachers expressed concerns that when students conduct research online, they often are engaged in many other activities at the same time, such as using social networking sites, watching online videos, playing online games, etc. This online “multi-tasking” may interfere with a student’s focus on an academic task, and may also be impacting time management skills.
Some teachers in the study report that students do not always set aside adequate time to complete assignments, specifically because they believe that digital tools will allow them to complete the task quickly online. However, when they do go online, students can be pulled into so many competing activities that the time they have allotted is not sufficient. Teachers say this is particularly true when a student leaves an assignment until the last minute, to find that online searches produce either too much information to sift through in the time available or too little information and inadequate time to research it more deeply. In focus groups, students confirmed this is sometimes the case. As one student explained, she has had the experience of going online to do schoolwork and then “suddenly realizing” many hours have gone by and she has spent most of that time on a social networking site—without remembering what led her there.
When you talk about time management, you’ve got the distraction, time mismanagement, and then you’ve got the “How much time do I really need to do it?” And once they start to research it, because they are working on the Internet, sometimes it takes them longer to go through the different links and evaluate things. – Teacher at College Board school
So, they have hit like one, two sites, winnow through - wallow through - this material, winnow out what’s good, and then start to put together their assignment. That is much more time consuming than they realize or understand, and that’s for a normal student. We have our kids that have some learning disabilities and you’re right, I didn’t even think about that, but they really – sometimes it can be overwhelming. – Teacher at College Board school
The volume of information online can be overwhelming for some students, and students often do not have time to winnow through it. Many teachers say they have watched their students become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information available online and either a lack of time or a lack of ability to sort through it effectively to find the best information for the assignment they are working on. Teens are not alone in this feeling; prior Pew Internet surveys indicate that 70% of adults agree with the assertion that “the amount of news and information available from different sources today is overwhelming.” The teachers we spoke with acknowledged that they too often feel this way, and are not surprised that students can become easily overwhelmed. Yet some are concerned that when students feel inundated with information, some respond by using the first information they come across without knowing if it is the best information available.
There’s a lot of different skills that go behind figuring out what the best source is, but I would say definitely when there’s a large amount of text, it’s really overwhelming for anybody, and if you’re looking at it on a smartphone screen, it’s even more so, which a lot of our students do use for. – Teacher at College Board school
Our freshmen have a really hard time determining what is good information to meet the task, because they might get good information, it’s reliable, it’s credible, it’s unbiased, but has nothing to do with solving the problem. – Teacher at College Board school
I think research has gotten paradoxically simpler and more complex for students and everyone. It is so easy to find basic information on nearly any subject. However, there is enormous difficulty finding signals amidst all the noise. This is where the greatest challenges exist for all. So students are generally lulled into a complacency and over-reliance on something like Google, although more and more students begin all searches with YouTube than I think many people notice. Regardless, the same kinds of skills and perseverance continue to apply as they always have. They are required to break through to deeper levels of information. Again, availability and access to quality resources has never been greater, but it requires even more skill in filtering and sorting. This is an area where students and others have always struggled. It is labor intensive and always requires a growing understanding of the topic and field, which evolves over time. Students are often in a rush. However, when they are on to something that they are really keen on the chances of them being able to go deep increases dramatically. – National Writing Project teacher
I believe students are overwhelmed with the amount of information that is thrown at them in today's world. As a result, I think most students throw their hands up in the air and take the information as is and at face value. They don't question or form opinions about information presented to them. If students don't develop this skill they are going to simply be puppets who believe everything that is set in front of them. I use this phrase with my 8th graders. "If it looks like dog food, and smells like dog food, is it always going to be dog food?" I am amazed at how many students walk away from this statement without questioning ANYTHING. – National Writing Project teacher
Cell phones as a classroom (and life) tool for “instant information”
Pew Internet has tracked the impact of cell phones on all Americans, adults and teens, since 2001. Over that time, as cell phones have become “smartphones,” people have become more and more reliant on these devices as information gathering tools. Specifically, cell phones have provided users with the ability to get almost any information they need at almost any time in almost any location.
Among adult cell phone users, the reliance on these mobile devices for “just-in-time” information is steadily growing. A March 2012 survey of U.S. adults finds that 70% of all adult cell phone owners had used the device in the past month to get a needed piece of information—including 35% who had used their phone to solve an unexpected problem and 27% who used their phone to settle an argument they were having. Other uses included getting help in an emergency situation and getting real-time everyday information such as weather or sports scores. Overall, these “just-in-time” adult cell users comprised 62% of the entire U.S. adult population. It is not surprising, therefore, to see adolescents and teens using their mobile devices as information-gathering tools, both inside and outside of the classroom.
To probe how these devices are being used by teens in their academic work, teachers were asked whether and how cell phones have become part of the learning experience. Roughly half of the teachers surveyed report that students are not permitted to use cell phones in their classrooms. The remaining half spoke to the impact these devices are having. The survey asked teachers whether their students use cell phones for any of five specific learning-related functions, shown in the table below. Reflecting the growing role of mobile tools in providing instant access to information, the most popular among the five activities asked about is students using a cell phone “to look up information in class,” cited by 42% of the teachers who participated in the survey. This was followed closely by students using mobile phones to “take pictures or record video to use in class assignments” (38%).
What’s amazing to me is I will throw off a comment like, particularly in my AP class I go, ‘Krugman wrote a great article about it, a great editorial last week,’ and [student] pulls out his phone, boom, he’s got the article literally before I finish the sentence. And he says, ‘Oh, I read that article.’ And I find that students who are with it and who are interested, they have an unparalleled ability. Like things that my teachers in high school may have mentioned to me that kind of just in one ear out the other but I eventually became interested in, had I had more access to the internet I would become interested in so many more things so much sooner… – Teacher at a College Board school
In focus groups, teachers noted how these tools can spur excitement and learning. Several teachers gave examples of students using phones to look up in class something of particular interest to them, rather than having to wait to look it up later. The teachers felt this fostered excitement for learning and capitalized on the student’s interest in that moment. While some teachers noted that cell phones can be distractions in the classroom, they also expressed the belief that cell phones are “here to stay” and present an opportunity to connect with their students using devices the students are excited about.
The impact of cell phones is being felt less by teachers in rural areas. Just 28% of this group says that students use phones to look up information in class, and fully 64% report students are not permitted to have cell phones in class. In contrast, 52% of teachers who describe their students as mostly upper and upper-middle income say students use their phones in class to find information.
The grade level and subject matter taught also impact how phones are used in class. Among 6th-8th grade teachers, just 23% say students are using phones in class to look things up, compared with 43% of 9th-10th grade teachers and 49% of those teaching 11th-12th grade. Likewise, while 49% of history/social studies teachers and 45% of English teachers see students use their phones this way in class, the same is true of just 24% of math teachers and 36% of science teachers.
Part III: The Changing Definition of “Research”
Beyond simply shaping research habits and practices, this population of middle and high school teachers suggests that the very definition of what “research” is has changed considerably in the digital world, and that change is reflected in how their students approach the task. The growing use and popularity of search engines among all segments of the population as a critical tool for finding information is reflected in today’s middle and high school students, who have not known a world without these tools. As a result, their very conception of “research” may be fundamentally different from prior generations.
“Research = Googling”
According to the teachers in this study, perhaps the most fundamental impact of the internet and digital tools on how students conduct research is how today’s digital environment is changing the very definition of what “research” is and what it means to “do research.” Ultimately, some teachers say, for students today, “research = Googling.” Specifically asked how their students would define the term “research,” most teachers felt that students would define the process as independently gathering information by "looking it up" or "Googling.” And when asked how middle and high school students today “do research,” the first response in every focus group, teachers and students, was “Google.”
In focus group discussions, teachers framed prior generations’ research practices as a time-consuming process that involved formulating a clear research question and then seeking out relevant and accurate information from trusted sources (mainly libraries), often with the aid of an expert (such as a reference librarian). In contrast, many suggest that today’s students define and approach the process of “doing research” very differently. What was once a slow process that ideally included intellectual curiosity and discovery is becoming a faster-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment. Teachers noted that this trend is driven not only by the immediacy and ease of the online search process, but also the time constraints today’s students face in their lives more generally.
The survey reveals search engines top the list of resources students use
Teachers’ perceptions that their students use only a handful of resources and rely mainly on search engines for their research are echoed in survey results. Asked how likely their students were to use a variety of different information sources for a typical research assignment, 94% of the teachers participating in the survey said their students were “very likely” to use Google or other online search engines, placing it well ahead of the other sources asked about. Second to search engines was the use of Wikipedia or other online encyclopedias, which 75% of teachers said their students were “very likely” to use in a typical research assignment. And rounding out the top three was YouTube or other social media sites, which about half of teachers (52%) said their students were “very likely” to use.
Virtually all subgroups of this sample of AP and NWP teachers reported similar levels of student use of search engines. The only exception to this pattern was among teachers of the lowest income students (those living below the poverty line); this group was slightly less inclined (at 90%) to say their students are “very likely” to use search engines in a typical research assignment. This group was also among the least likely to report their students are “very likely” to use Wikipedia and other online encyclopedias (68% compared with 75% of the total sample). In contrast, 80% of teachers whose students are described as mostly upper and upper middle income say their students are “very likely” to use sites like Wikipedia.
The use of online encyclopedias as research tools also varied slightly by subject taught, with English teachers at the low end (69%) and science teachers at the high end (82%) of the range of those saying their students are “very likely” to use this source. English teachers are also the least likely to describe their students as “very likely” to use YouTube and other social media sites in a typical research assignment, with 44% reporting this level of use. The figure for the sample of teachers as a whole is slightly higher at 52%.
More “traditional” sources of information, such as textbooks, print books, online databases, and research librarians ranked well below these newly emerging technologies. Fewer than one in five teachers said their students are “very likely” to use any of these sources in typical research assignments. In the case of online databases and printed books, half or more of the teachers who participated in the survey said their students are “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to use these sources. In fact, fewer teachers said their students are likely to use these sources than to use their peers, study guides such as SparkNotes or CliffNotes, or the websites of major news organizations.
When it comes to the use of print books, the findings across all subgroups in this sample of teachers are surprisingly consistent. Teachers of the poorest students—those living below the poverty line—stand out slightly in that they most commonly say their students are “very likely” to use print books in their research assignments (19% say this). Also among the teacher subgroups particularly likely to say their students are “very likely” to use print books in research assignments are middle school teachers (19%) when compared with 9th-10th grade teachers (12%) and 11th-12th grade teachers (11%). At the other end of the range, science (7%) and math (9%) teachers are particularly unlikely to say print books are a common source for their students.
Among the subgroups of this sample who are most inclined to say their students are “very likely” to use research librarians as a source are English teachers (20%) and teachers ages 55 and older (22%). But again, these figures are only slightly higher than the 16% of all teachers who say this is the case.
In focus groups, teachers noted that students prefer the internet because they find it a more interesting and entertaining platform. While the internet is a “cool” place to do research, other more traditional sources are perceived as “boring” by students. The internet offers multi-media content, links to additional information, interactive formats, and textbooks and other print books pale in comparison.
Traditional Textbooks are one-dimensional. They aren't interactive. They don't let me go somewhere else if I want more information. There's no sound, no movies, no hyperlinks. Students are accustomed to interacting with text. I think that's why textbooks on the iPad have been successful. – National Writing Project teacher
Last week, I gave my students twenty questions posed by the guys at Flocabulary in conjunction with the Wikipedia Blackout in Response to SOPA. The questions ranged from What is the State Bird of Arkansas" to "Who won Super Bowl X?" to "Who won the Republican primary last week?" Since the students could not use Wikipedia, it was interesting to see what they went to next: Ask.com, About.com. Dogpile.com, Google.com, Answers.com, and a host of other sites like these that are a part of my students' collective toolbox when it comes to securing sources from the web. But when they were answering the one regarding the Super Bowl, none of the students in the six classes I teach ever thought to consult The National Football League. Further, when a question was posed about the first Starbucks, none of my students thought to ask anyone else in the room for their residential expertise. – National Writing Project teacher
Teaching students to do effective searches like SweetSearch.com helps them to understand that a discourse community does exist in regard to their selected subject and these parties often—well always—offer readily citable information wherein their traditional tried and true searches do not. – National Writing Project teacher
Students in my school setting know Yahoo and Google and as I have mentioned before, they think whatever they find on the internet is true. I teach my students to look at the initial source and see if they have any credible individuals to back up their research. Sometimes this is time consuming, but they do figure out there are bogus sites out there. I think students need to know there are people out there with websites just because they can have them. Students see the internet as a cool place where they can get quick information. They don't know how to use it properly. I am not sure there are adults that know how to use it properly. – National Writing Project teacher
Teens are not alone in their reliance on search engines
The trend among teens to equate finding information with “Googling” mirrors trends seen in adults over the past decade. Over time, Pew Internet’s surveys of adults have consistently shown that search engine use tops the list of most popular online activities, along with email. Currently, 91% of online adults use search engines to find information on the web, up from 84% in June 2004. On any given day online, 59% of those using the internet use search engines. In 2004 that figure stood at just 30% of internet users. Moreover, among adult search users, Google is far and away the most used search engine with Yahoo placing a distant second, and its dominance is growing over time.
Not only are adults increasingly reliant on search engines as an information resource, but they also report generally trusting the results they get and feeling the quality and relevance of the information provided by search engines is improving over time. Specifically:
- 91% of adult search engine users say they always or most of the time find the information they are seeking when they use search engines
- 73% of adult search engine users say that most or all of the information they find using search engines is accurate and trustworthy
- 66% of adult search engine users say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information
- 55% of adult search engine users say that, in their experience, the quality of search results is getting better over time, while just 4% say it has gotten worse
- 52% of adult search engine users say search engine results have gotten more relevant and useful over time, while just 7% report that results have gotten less relevant
- 56% of adult search engine users say they are very confident in their search abilities, while only 6% say they are not too or not at all confident
- 86% of adult search engine users report that they have learned something new or important using a search engine that really helped them or increased their knowledge
- 50% of adult search engine users say they have found an obscure fact using a search engine that they thought they would not be able to find
In contrast, fewer adult search users report experiencing negative outcomes:
- 41% report getting conflicting information in search results and being unable to determine which information is correct
- 38% say they sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of information found using a search engine
- 34% feel that critical information is sometimes missing from search results
The teachers surveyed are likewise heavy search engine users, and are very confident in their searching abilities
The teachers in our sample are likewise part of the “Googling” trend. Asked about their own use of different online tools, 100% of the teachers participating in the survey said they use online search engines to find information online, with 90% naming Google as the search engine they use most often.
Overall, compared with all U.S. adults, this population of teachers is more confident in their own search abilities. Almost three-quarters (73%) of these middle and high school teachers say they are “very confident” in their own search abilities, with another 26% saying they are “somewhat confident.” Of the more than 2,000 teachers surveyed, only 1% describe themselves as “not too confident” when it comes to using search engines.
While this sample of AP and NWP teachers has greater confidence than adults as a whole in their search abilities, they have considerably less faith in the accuracy of the information they find using these tools. Just 5% of teachers participating in the survey say that “all or almost all” of the information they find using search engines is accurate or trustworthy, compared with 28% of all U.S. adult search users.
The AP and NWP teachers surveyed here are also very different from adults as a whole in that the youngest teachers have less faith in the accuracy of search results. Among the general population, younger adults tend to have more faith in the trustworthiness and accuracy of the search results they get. Yet teachers mirror the general adult population in that younger teachers have more confidence in their search abilities than their older counterparts:
50% of teachers ages 22-34 say that all or most of the information they find using search engines is accurate or trustworthy, compared with 61% of teachers ages 35-54 and 68% of teachers age 55 and older.
- Meanwhile, 80% of the youngest teachers say they are “very confident” in their search abilities, compared with 75% of 35-54 year-old teachers and 63% of teachers ages 55 and older.
Part IV: Teaching Research Skills in Today’s Digital Environment
Given these findings about how students today define “research” and approach the research process, teachers are faced with identifying and teaching middle and high school students the skills they will need to be smart information seekers in the digital age. The data indicate that teachers in this study place tremendous value on research skills, with most reporting assigning a research paper to their students in the 2011-2012 academic year and spending class time teaching various research skills to their students. These lessons are aimed at addressing deficits they see in today’s students. Most notable among these is the inability to judge the quality of information, a skill the vast majority of teachers deem “essential” for their students’ future success.
Most teachers in the study assigned a research paper in the 2011-2012 academic year
Among the teachers in the study, the majority assigned at least one research paper to their middle and high school students in the 2011-2012 academic year. As the graphic below suggests, among this sample of teachers, short essays and journaling are the most commonly assigned writing tasks, with more than half of the sample (58%) having their students write short essays, short responses, or opinion pieces at least once a week and 41% having students journal on a weekly basis.
Research papers—along with multimedia assignments and creative writing in the form of plays or short stories—are not assigned by many teachers on a frequent basis, but are assigned at some point during the academic year by most of the teachers in our sample. Just over three-quarters of these teachers report having students complete a research paper (77%) or a multimedia project (77%) at some point during the current academic year. Two-thirds (66%) have students complete a creative writing assignment during the year as well, such as writing poetry, a play, a short story, or piece of fiction.
Some teachers are more likely than others to assign a research paper; not surprising given the different skills and subjects being taught. Fully 94% of the English teachers in this sample assigned at least one research paper in the past academic year, compared with 83% of history/social studies teachers, 68% of science teachers, and 36% of math teachers. Almost nine in ten teachers who participated in the NWP Summer Institute (88%) reported assigning a research paper in the 2011-2012 academic year.
Most teachers rate their students “good” or “fair” on a variety of specific research skills
Despite the overall perception that the internet and digital technologies have a “mostly positive” impact on students’ research habits, in most cases the AP and NWP teachers surveyed rate the specific research skills of their students “good” or “fair.” Very few teachers rate their students “excellent” on any of the research skills asked about in the survey.
Overall, teachers gave students the highest ratings on their ability to use appropriate and effective search terms and understanding how online search results are generated. Yet even for these top items, only about one-quarter of teachers rated students “excellent” or “very good.” And in focus groups, many teachers suggested that despite the current generation of middle and high school students being raised in the “digital age,” they are often surprised at how poor their students’ search abilities are.
It kills me to see students typing in whole questions: "What does it mean to leave a digital footprint on today's society?" into Google. The funny thing is they actually get disappointed when it doesn't spit back an answer. I have actually found this to be a great lesson on synonyms - helping them to come up with other key words that might be helpful in their search as well. We will also spend some time looking at how advanced searches work. – National Writing Project teacher
Reflecting teachers’ concerns about the impact of the internet on students’ expectations of “instant information,” the skill they rate students lowest on is “patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find.” Fully 43% of the teachers participating in the survey said that overall they would rate their students “poor” in this regard, and another 35% rate their students “fair” when it comes to patiently pursuing information they need.
A majority of survey respondents also described their students as “fair” or “poor” when it comes to:
- Using multiple sources effectively to support an argument
- Assessing the quality and accuracy of information they find online, and
- Recognizing bias in online content
These relatively low ratings (of what are by and large honors and advanced students) may reflect teachers’ expectations of the skill level they would like to help their students reach, yet survey results indicate that teachers see room for students to improve in most, if not all, of these areas.
Two patterns emerge in looking at the ratings teachers give their students on their research skills. In the case of all but one skill asked about, more teachers of the lowest income students rate their students “poor” than do teachers of higher income students. The only exception to this pattern is “Patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find” on which teachers across different socioeconomic levels rate their students equally.
A second consistent pattern that emerges is that teachers with more classroom experience (16 years or more) perceive their students’ skills more positively across the board. Teachers who have been in the classroom for 15 or fewer years, in contrast, seem to have more negative views of their students’ research skills and more of them rate their students “poor” on every skill asked about.
When it comes to patience and determination finding information, the lowest marks come from English teachers, 50% of whom rate their students “poor” in this regard. Looking just at National Writing Project teachers, 53% of this group give their students the lowest rating of “poor.”
What research skills should be taught?
Both the survey and focus group asked teachers which research skills, in particular, are critical for the current generation of middle and high school students to learn. In focus groups, the most commonly cited skills were how to evaluate the quality of information, how to recognize what information is and is not relevant to the question at hand, and how to synthesize information from multiple sources into a coherent piece of work.
They need to know how to find information and how to judge how appropriate and accurate the material is. They need to be able to assess the biases in their sources. They need to be able to find the material that will help them. –AP US History teacher
The impact of the Internet is that a lot of students are overwhelmed with the amount of information. So, they don’t really know exactly which is the best site because there are so many; there are millions of links per word, so [the most critical skill is] determining importance, yes. Determining importance – saliency determination. – Teacher at College Board School
The Internet is empowering, but it’s empowering everyone’s opinion and everyone wants to get their information out there, and we need to try to teach the students to be more discriminators – have greater discrimination about the quality of the information they’re accessing. – Teacher at College Board School
I teach tenth grade and twelfth grade Social Studies. It’s becoming much more important that the students – it’s wonderful to have the access to information – but now more than ever, I feel that they need to be smart consumers of information. And I feel students are progressively losing their ability to sort out what’s good information, what’s reliable information, and basically filter…As schools go on and Internet access becomes more prevalent and computers standard in the classroom, teaching is changing from not just teaching you how to process and restate and think about information, but also we’re going to have to teach them the skill to know how to filter this information. – Teacher at College Board School
Survey findings echo these sentiments. The vast majority of teachers surveyed feel that “courses or content focusing on digital literacy must be incorporated into every school’s curriculum,” indicating just how critical they feel the ability to locate and assess information in the digital world is. About half of the teachers in the study (47%) say they “strongly agree” and another 44% “somewhat agree” with this proposition, meaning that 93% of teachers support this curriculum change. NWP Summer Institute teachers are particularly likely to take this view, with 59% saying they “strongly agree” that this curriculum change is needed. Also expressing strong views on this question are teachers of students living below the poverty line, 60% of whom “strongly agree” such courses are needed.
Moreover, asked to place a value on various skills today’s students may need in the future, “judging the quality of information” tops the list, along with “writing effectively.” These two skills were described as “essential” by 91% of the teachers who participated in the survey. Other skills relevant to the current digital culture also ranked high, with large majorities of teachers saying that “behaving responsibly online” (85%) and “understanding privacy issues surrounding online and digital content” (78%) are “essential” to their students’ later success in life.
While evaluating the quality of information tops the list of essential skills, 56% of survey participants also feel that “finding information quickly” is essential to success. Another 40% describe this skill as “important, but not essential,” indicating that while teachers place tremendous value on teaching their students to assess the quality of information, they also appreciate the importance of speed in today’s fast-moving digital world. Those who have been teaching longer (16 years or more) are slightly more likely than those teaching 15 years or fewer to describe this skill as “essential” (60% of more experienced teachers v. 52% of newer teachers) but otherwise no notable differences exist across subgroups of teachers.
Among the skills included in the survey, those viewed as less essential to students’ success are “presenting themselves effectively in online social networking sites” and “working with audio, video, or graphic content.” Fewer than one in three teachers saw either of these skills as “essential” to their students’ later success, though substantial percentages do describe each of these skills as “important, but not essential.”
When should these skills be taught, and by whom?
While the AP and NWP teachers in the study generally agreed on what skills are needed and that these skills should be a part of standard curricula, there was less consistency in their opinions of when these skills should be taught and by whom. Asked at what point in their educational careers students should learn these critical research skills, many focus group participants felt they should be taught in elementary school, and that students should already possess these skills prior to entering middle school or high school. Others felt that elementary students may not be ready to learn the nuances of bias, fair use, and salience, and that these more advances skills are better taught later in a student’s career.
The question of who should be mainly responsible for this part of the curriculum was also open to debate in focus groups, with some teachers openly acknowledging that they do not currently feel qualified to teach some of these skills. Some reported that their school’s English department takes the lead in developing research skills, and that their own role is mainly reinforcing these skills. Yet others suggested these skills need to be taught by all teachers across the curriculum, and that library staff can be a key part of that process.
The first thing students need to learn is to discern the quality of a source. After that, they need to be able to compile information from various sources and synthesize their own work, in their own words. Students must cite all sources for their work. This should start in the elementary grades, and does in my district. – AP Chemistry teacher
Credibility, validity, purpose, and reliability are all important aspects to consider when viewing an electronic resource. Also, students need to be aware of how recent web based information is by knowing how to check publishing dates. I think some of these skills can be taught as early as 3rd or 4th grade from the standpoint of ‘how do you know when something is true?’ –AP Biology teacher
Teachers must take the time, and take on the responsibility of teaching students how to search more wisely on the internet. I do not think enough time is devoted to this task because everyone thinks it is someone else's job to do it…Regardless of what is done, these skills have to be explicitly taught. – National Writing Project teacher
I find that my students do not have sound research skills in place in the 8th grade...and I'm not so certain that it is the best use of their time to tackle an isolated weighty research project. My instincts tell me to develop ongoing research expectations, in smaller, manageable chunks, so that they receive more guidance on more of the work/research. I'd rather know that my students had a chance to get better at the process of reading and researching for one focused idea than raking them through a project just to rake them through a project. There is less of chance that a student would plagiarize and an even better chance that they would learn what the difference is between work that is plagiarized and that which is not. – National Writing Project teacher
I demonstrate how to do good research in my class and then I assign projects and papers where they have to research. I do source checks before the projects are due to make sure students are on the right track. I really rely on skills they learned in their English classes. –AP Biology teacher
I try my best to teach students how to choose credible sources, but I rely on the expertise of others for the ins and outs of this very difficult to navigate lesson. Thank goodness there are so many resources to help me with this, but I admit. I have to do more. – National Writing Project teacher
Current approaches to teaching critical research skills
Asked about different approaches they use to develop effective research skills in their students, two different tracts emerge—first, spending class time teaching and developing these skills, and second, designing assignments that require students to use new or different approaches.
In terms of devoting class time to this area, fully eight in ten of the AP and NWP teachers who participated in the survey report spending class time discussing how to assess the reliability of online information, and seven in ten spend class time generally discussing how to conduct research online. Fewer teachers, but still a majority, say they spend class time helping students improve search terms and queries, yet just one-third devote class time to helping students understand how search engines work and how search results are actually generated and ranked.
A second strategy these middle and high school teachers use is intentionally constructing or shaping research assignments in ways that either direct students to the best online resources, or require students to expand the repertoire of sources they use. Nine in ten survey respondents report directing their students to specific online resources they feel are most appropriate for a particular assignment, and 83% develop research questions or assignments that require students to use a variety of sources, both online and offline. Substantially fewer teachers, just 29%, assign work to students in which they forbid the use of online sources.
Suggestions in the focus groups that English teachers generally take the lead on teaching these skills were echoed by survey results. English teachers in this sample are the most likely to report implementing each one of these lessons/approaches, followed closely by history/social studies teachers. For example, 93% of English teachers in the sample report developing assignments that require students to use a variety of sources, followed by 91% of history/social studies teachers, 77% of science teachers, and 47% of math teachers. Similarly, when it comes to spending class time discussing how to assess the reliability of information, English teachers take the lead (94%), followed by history/social studies teachers (90%), then science teachers (69%) and math teachers (46%).
The merits of these latter strategies—structuring or shaping assignments in ways that required students to use particular sources or more varied sources—was discussed at length in focus groups. Many teachers reported requiring students to utilize offline resources in an effort to familiarize them with materials they might not otherwise use. Others said they stress to their students the importance of paying attention to website domains, and encourage or require them to use .gov, .org or .edu sites. And many teachers reported banning the use of particular online sources, most commonly those with user-generated content such as Wikipedia, or telling students exactly which online resources are most useful or even permissible for particular assignments.
At the same time, teachers felt that eliminating the use of all online resources or even particular online resources in assignments is unrealistic and can be counterproductive. Because students are already reliant on these sources when they arrive in middle and high school, and have a comfort level with them, many teachers feel a better approach is to teach students how to use these tools effectively. Indeed, in student focus groups, teens acknowledged that even when they are “not allowed” to use Wikipedia in their research, it is still often their “first stop” in completing an assignment. Students feel that Wikipedia’s fairly short encyclopedic entries provide them with a quick “overview” of a topic from which to orient their research process, and some teachers agreed. Thus, rather than attempt to control which websites students utilize in completing school assignments, or even their very use of online resources, the underlying philosophy for many is teaching their students to be better information consumers in the digital arena.
I’d take the choice out of it. I’d tell them which sources to access, because the bottom line is, I’m so pressed for the time that rather than risk them going out and finding the wrong information, I tell them what sources to access and then you give them five sources and you say, ‘These are the approved sources. Do not go outside this realm.’ And ultimately that’s probably self-defeating because they’re not always going to be given that narrow focus like that, but I don’t teach in a theoretical world. – Teacher at College Board School
We almost do the opposite in our classroom. I’m a special education teacher and we tell them what sources we don’t like and so now they can tell us what sources we don’t like that they shouldn’t use. – Teacher at College Board School
I assign work that requires them to use online resources such as JSTOR, EBSCO, Proquest, and other databases to which our school subscribes. –AP English Language teacher
So, how do you know what’s biased and what’s unbiased? How do you know who’s an expert and who’s working out of their basement, saying they’re a doctor? So, we kind of tell them, as a first point, to look at the [domain] – is it .edu, is it .gov, is it .org you can trust? We try to give them those pointers and then we try to say, look at the About Us page, try to do some research on the person or the company using the website. – Teacher at College Board School
I demonstrate how to do good research in my class and then I assign projects and papers where they have to research. I do source checks before the projects are due to make sure students are on the right track. I really rely on skills they learned in their English classes. –AP Biology teacher
Credibility and usefulness of sources is a part of every conversation about research/inquiry projects that we undertake. This can take many forms. For some assignments I have mandated that kids solely get research from articles found in one of the databases the school subscribes to. For other projects we discuss this idea of credibility and I walk around and look at where they're headed for research and if I need to step in and start a conversation about a particular source my student and I have that discussion. – National Writing Project teacher
Many focus group participants also reported assigning a large research project to be completed over the course of the full academic year, which they can break into smaller steps to help students develop an understanding of the various pieces that go into successful research as well as the time that must be devoted to each. In designing these research assignments, focus group participants suggested the following elements are particularly important:
- Showing students how to develop a focused research question and a plan of what they should be looking for, to help them “sort through the noise”
- Requiring students to utilize more than online resources
- Teaching students how to properly cite the sources they use, particularly online sources
- Developing a student’s ability to determine the timeliness, relevance, and quality of the online information they find
- Teaching students how to appropriately paraphrase and synthesize information
No matter the grade level I break [research] down in a step by step process. First working with documents, then using our learning center to find source material, establishing the credibility of that information and then using it in an essay or project. –AP US History teacher
In all of my classes, we are visiting the library/lab on some kind of regular basis whether it's for a persuasive essay, speech, research paper, etc. Students mark up the article, find the author's argument/thesis, create their own, find opposing views, find supporting views, etc. These are all research skills—break it down (analyze) to write it down (synthesize). –AP English Language teacher
Much of searching for information today is about evaluation of sources. Students often stick to what they know and they often do not expand on utilizing their search skills, so yes, I teach them about it. They tend to stick to Google. I challenge them to use various sources and explore databases. When teaching this I often explore various false sites with them. Sometimes I establish various credibility tests. I find fun material and they have to determine if it is credible or not and why. I pull material from various websites, to tabloids, to internet email hoaxes, to credible sources. They decide if it is credible material or not and how to determine if something is credible. We explore various criteria for exploring if something is credible. I also teach this with visual literacy and we explore doctored images, etc. I love pulling an image of a website that states that something happened to their favorite celebrity. They debate what is true and how to find the truth. – National Writing Project teacher
At least half of my curriculum is devoted to doing research online. We spend a lot of time noticing differences between sources, but without judgment. Instead of asking about the credibility of sources, we spend a lot more time wondering if a particular source is of value to my writing. A personal reflection in a blog might provide the perfect turn of phrase to quote in your own argument. We also spend a lot of time teaching student how to cite their sources, and in this process we talk about reliability and the need to have more than one source, no matter where it comes from. I could go on for some time about this. It is the heart of my work with students, but it isn't something that easily fits into a set of lessons. There are slowly evolving critical lenses that I see my students beginning to use when they are immersed in self directed, passion-based projects. The simple ways of determining credibility just don't make sense. Who is to say that a podcast is less reliable than a Wikipedia page. A lot depends on your purpose, your critical use, and the other sources that surround any one source. It's too complicated to teach outside of the ongoing practice of doing research. – National Writing Project teacher
Usually when we are doing some kind of research in my class I will scaffold it enough where students have a pretty good idea where to go, but the issue also becomes what do they do when they get to where they need to be. I read an interesting study about how people read websites, much different based on age and much different than we read print. I usually bring this study up with the kids so we can have conversations about how to best use our time and find the best information. – National Writing Project teacher
I usually preface a long-range research assignment with a challenge of my own. I'll remind them of our discussion about "Is Google Making us Stupid?" where they essentially said that their generation is being dismissed too quickly by the pundits who say they can't think deeply. When I remind them that a lot of people say that their generation wants instant gratification of information, that raises some hackles. If they're aware of the obstacles of an in-depth assignment, they're more prepared to challenge those assumptions. I guess I'd say that a big part of my teaching is attuning my students to how we think as we move through the research process. Make those negative assumptions part of the discussion and a lot of the students see that as a call to move past them. My students aren't shallow, lazy and stupid, and they don't want to be thought of as such. – National Writing Project teacher
Challenges to teaching research skills in today’s digital environment
In general, the AP and NWP teachers in the study feel their students are very receptive to learning effective research skills, but point out that teaching these skills is not without challenges. By far, the most commonly cited challenge is simply a lack of time to devote to developing effective lessons and teaching skills in class. Teachers repeatedly noted the difficulty in covering these skills in addition to the other content they are required to cover. They also note that they themselves must become savvy information consumers before they can impart these skills to their students.
Among other challenges teachers report facing are pay walls separating them and their students from the best information online and digital access issues among their students. Teachers stressed that the best, most credible resources on the internet are often available only by subscription, thus many schools and students do not have access to what is truly the highest quality information in a particular field. In addition, they point out that for many of their students, research time is restricted by a lack of internet access at home and/or limited library hours.
The biggest challenge in any AP class in my experience is time. The volume and depth of the material is so extensive that finding the time to teach effective research is very difficult. – AP US History teacher
Time. There is never enough time to get through all of the standards and spend adequate time teaching research skills also. It takes a lot of time to do justice to teaching research skills. – AP Biology teacher
Time and access to technology are always hurdles to teaching anything. A lot of times we assign a research assignment and turn the students loose into the world to research on their own. Too often, parents do not even know what is going on in regards to this. Maybe we should work harder on getting them involved in this process. Most students are receptive to methods that will speed their research but not with what will make it better. This is another obstacle to overcome. – AP US History teacher
The other problem is the…limited number of resources that are available for free; most of the primary resources, most of the better resources have to be paid for by subscription. – Teacher at College Board School
What [other teacher] said was right on the money I mean where do people go for the most reliable information? One is the Wall Street Journal or extended subscription to the [New York] Times and the Washington Post or whatnot. That’s subscriber’s access. You want to go to The Economist, you’ve got to pay for it. The best sources, you’ve got to pay. – Teacher at College Board School
If we had laptops in every room, we would be able to champion tat cause of ‘this is how you do research’ more, rather than just showing them our laptop….They have to do the research at home and they’re kind of on their own. We give them pointers, but… – Teacher at College Board School
The survey also indicates that these teachers face a variety of challenges in effectively incorporating online content and digital tools into their classrooms, some of which may hinder their ability to teach students how best to conduct research online. Virtually all teachers surveyed report working in a school that employs internet filters (97%), formal policies about cell phone use (97%), and acceptable use policies or AUPs (97%). The degree to which teachers feel these different policies impact their teaching varies, with internet filters cited most often as having a “major impact” on survey participants’ teaching (32%). One in five teachers (21%) say cell phone policies have a “major” impact on their teaching, and 16% say the same about their school’s AUP.
Looking more closely at subgroups of the teachers surveyed, it becomes clear that those teaching in urban areas and those teaching the lowest income students are feeling the impact of these types of restrictions more so than those living in other community types and those teaching students from mainly upper and upper middle income households. In particular, teachers of students living in poverty are at least twice as likely as those teaching the most affluent students to report these policies having a “major” impact on their teaching.
Part V: Teachers’ Concerns About Broader Impacts of Digital Technologies on Their Students
Throughout focus group discussions, teachers noted that their experiences with middle and high school students cannot be isolated from broader trends shaping this generation, and that much of what they see in their students’ academic habits, characteristics, and attitudes are reflections of much broader impacts of growing up in a digital age. To probe these issues more fully, the survey posed several questions asking teachers to evaluate today’s students compared to prior generations, in terms of basic skills and habits such as attention and distraction, cognition, multi-tasking, media literacy, and overall literacy. Overall, in the eyes of their teachers, today’s middle and high school students compare both favorably and unfavorably with prior generations. Yet there are widely varying opinions among teachers about how “unique” this generation is, and how they compare with predecessors on specific dimensions
are divided on whether “digital natives” are fundamentally different than prior generations of students
On the whole, teachers are divided on the question of whether today’s students are fundamentally different from previous generations. For instance, 47% of teachers surveyed agree with the statement that “today’s students are really no different than previous generations, they just have different tools through which to express themselves,” while 52% disagree with that statement. Surprisingly, teachers’ views of this statement are consistent across virtually all subgroups, including teacher age and experience, grade level taught, community type, student socioeconomic status, and subject taught.
When asked in another item, however, whether they agree or disagree that “today’s students have fundamentally different cognitive skills because of the digital technologies they have grown up with” 88% of the teachers surveyed agree, including 40% who “strongly agree.” Teachers of the lowest income students are most likely to “strongly agree” with this statement (46%) but the difference across student socioeconomic status only ranges from 37% (mostly lower middle income) to 46%, and there are no other notable differences across subgroups of the sample.
Focus group participants were likewise split on the question of how unique today’s students are. Some feel that growing up in the digital world has significantly impacted the way today’s students think and process information, yet an equal proportion of teachers expressed the opposing view, arguing that what they see in their students today is no different than what they have always encountered teaching young people. They suggest that while key habits and characteristics may take a different form, or be expressed differently, the underlying challenges they face teaching middle and high school students are the same today as they were prior to the digital explosion.
I've been teaching for 25 years and I don't think teens have changed that much. As I mentioned previously, my students can read deeply and think critically about challenging texts as well as my generation did. They are capable of doing thorough research and critically evaluate information, the can form persuasive appeals, they're effective writers. I think what's different is the amount of information that they have to critically evaluate, and the amount of spin that they have to deal with in commercial and political communication. – National Writing Project teacher
I would say that our students are asked to digest much more information than I ever was. That's got to be tough. It's tough to know which information to read deeply, which site will offer credible sources. Schools should address this more. If anything, schools are slower to respond to the needs of students now than they were in the past. Maybe, this is why it is perceived that today's students are lagging behind those of the past. If as educators, we do not accept the responsibility to teach our students the skills to navigate messages, information, multiple identities, and other demands that these technologies place on our youth, future generations will certainly fail to meet the current demands. – National Writing Project teacher
Just today in a staff meeting we were talking about students not studying for tests. Older (more experienced) teachers in the room started to lament about how students are not studying for tests the way they used to when they were in school. The teachers recalled times in their life when they would sit at the kitchen table or at the desk in their room actually going over their reviews and their notes to study and prepare for a specific tests. As I listened to them talk, I thought back to my own studying experiences. I can't say that I can remember spending tons of time studying for a specific test. If a teacher gave us a review sheet I would always complete the review sheet, but did I myself ever study the material before the test? The answer is no, I did not. So is this current class of students really that much different from a class ten, fifteen, twenty years ago? I'm not convinced that there really is a difference…I am not convinced that this current group of students is any more or less skilled at any of the items than that of previous generations. – National Writing Project teacher
Teachers say today’s students are more media savvy, but also less literate and more distracted than previous generations
Asked to evaluate this generation on more specific skills and characteristics, a vast majority of survey participants agree with the notion that “today’s students are more media savvy than previous generations” (86%). Yet, almost as many teachers disagree with the statement that “today’s students are more literate than previous generations” (80%).
Older, more experienced teachers are slightly more likely than their younger counterparts to “strongly agree” with the idea that today’s students are more media savvy than prior generations. Among teachers ages 55 and older, 61% “strongly agree” with this idea, compared with 50% of younger teachers. Similarly, while 56% of those who have been teaching for 16 years or longer “strongly agree” that today’s students are more media savvy than prior generations, the same is true of 50% of those who have not been teaching as long.
On the question of whether today’s students are more literate than previous generations, teachers teaching in large metro areas or cities are particularly likely to “strongly disagree” with this statement; more than one in five (23%) “strongly disagree” that today’s students are more literate compared with 16% of teachers in rural areas. Teachers of the lowest income students, those living in poverty, also strongly dispute this statement. One-third of this group (33%) “strongly disagree” that today’s students are more literate than students of the past, while another 48% “somewhat disagree.”
The question of overall literacy among students is one that arose often in focus group discussions. Not only did some focus group participants feel that today’s students are no more literate than prior generations, they also feel their students may be losing ground in this area. Typical of these concerns is the following excerpt from a focus group with teachers at a College Board school, in which several teachers suggested that diminishing writing skills may be due in part to a diminishing desire to read in general, and a diminishing ability to read difficult texts. While focus group participants disagreed as to whether the underlying issue is a lack of skill or a lack of interest or focus, there was general agreement in this group that today’s students are reading less:
R: They [students] don’t read. There are readers and then there’s everybody else, and the readers are like few and far between. They don’t read even though we push them to read.
R: The ability to focus on one task which is a lot of what we’re talking about here, to read a book from cover to cover and be able to do that and that alone is becoming enormously difficult. We’re reading Brave New World in our ELA class now for tenth grade ELA which is a staple book that every high school student has read for many, many years now. The book itself is about 170 or 175 pages. It’s not a long book. It’s certainly a book that’s rich in ideas and rich in language but it’s not a long book. I would say in terms of the section I teach, which is the [removed] section, I want to say of that 170 pages the average student has read between 40 and 45 so far and the book is supposed to have been completed last week. Now we read Romeo and Juliet before that. Again, the majority of the class did not complete reading the play…Now I certainly can’t speak for any other teacher here in terms of the percentage or the amount of text that they’re completing or not completing, but it does concern me. Again, I’m trying to find out why - why is this happening? And the answers I’m getting are pretty stock. I find that it’s boring, it’s not interesting.
M: But do you think they’re not capable of doing it or do you think they don’t see value?
R: No, no, I think the latter. I certainly think except for a very, very small percentage who might have more severe learning disabilities, a very, very small percentage, every student at this school is more than capable of reading.
M: So it’s not that the technology actually is limiting their ability to read long texts deeply. It’s that it’s diminishing the value of doing it?
R: I believe that is a component. I’d like to see more research done with that. I’d also like to see surveys conducted and get more quantitative data on that.
R: I respectfully disagree…but I totally agree with [other teacher] that the internet has done a number and has weakened students’ ability to read for depth, to read for long periods of time and the idea of reading for enjoyment. I didn’t go to school that long ago but I remember that everybody liked to read something, whether it was Sports Illustrated or it was what you call it, science fiction stuff. Everybody liked to read something and we see a lot of students today who aren’t interested in reading anything, and I think that technology…that they become much more functional readers. It does connect to what [other teacher] was saying in that they’re reading stuff to get information and it goes to the speed piece, too. ‘I’m reading it to get the information to do what I need to do and that’s it.’ Why would I sit down and read a 180-page book? What am I going to get there? What’s in it for me? I’ve got to go. I’ve got things to do.
R: I don’t think a lot of them are reading at all. I think that any kind of reading would be wonderful. Reading a comic book would be wonderful. Reading a graphic novel would be wonderful. Reading an online article would be wonderful. They’re not reading anything. They’re looking at pictures, they’re playing video games, and they’re on Facebook reading posts. I’m not talking about reading posts on Facebook. Reading something that takes some kind of stamina, it doesn’t matter even what the content is.
R: I think many of the kids are reading but they are reading shorter things, one to four pages. Newspapers, I know a lot of our kids read newspapers which fits with [the focus of] the school. A lot of them read magazines. I’ve seen that some of the younger grades would get the scholastic magazines. They’ll read those but it’s always the same problem, you’re reading anywhere from one to six pages and they just – it’s a habit like anything else. You get into this mindset where you’ve got a short, maybe just one to six pages and pretty much done and I think they’ve got a great deal of difficulty segueing over to books which require more stamina and picking it and reading 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 pages, or even reading from beginning to end.
Yet, in the same discussion, teachers spoke about the promise of digital tools to address what others see as an inability or unwillingness of their students to take on long and challenging texts. As one teacher explained:
The other thing that -- I want to end on a positive note -- is that we did read Of Mice and Men in the class and we did get I would say like 98% of the people were reading it, and it could be framed as boring but we didn’t. We framed it in an interesting way and they liked it. Some kids did download it on their phones and some kids did have Nooks and Kindles and they brought them in and that was their way of doing it and they found ways to highlight and everything, so that did help some of the kids who couldn’t get access to a printed copy. So I think that was a positive.
R: But that said…the not reading book-length material goes back to [them being] used to short, not only well-edited, sometimes poorly written, but certainly short and not richly written material that they read on the internet. But that’s where their primary source of information now is either going to be internet, magazines or newspapers. They’re not doing books so I think one of the things I’d like to see in the schools is things like Nooks getting cheap enough [so] we can buy classrooms some Nooks or have enough that we can check them out or have a room where they can check out a Nook or read a book and have a place to read it. They might do that if the technology is there that makes the book accessible. They have a place where they cannot go to lunch where it’s crazy, [but] come up and have a quiet room. But that would require probably buying anywhere from 50 to 100 units. I mean it would be a great idea.
In an online focus group with NWP Summer Institute teachers, participants were asked the value of students being able to read challenging (often long) texts critically in today’s digital world. Across the board, these teachers continue to see tremendous value in this skill, and view it as essential for students to function in an information-based world. However, some teachers in this group also questioned whether this is a fading skill among “digital natives.”
Reading critically is about thinking and learning. Yes, I do believe that being challenged with reading is critical for the purpose of learning and thinking. No matter what students do in the future this skill is essential. Everyone will have to read through tough texts and explore various audiences. I want my students to be able to tackle texts in a smart manner. Critical reading applies to reading our world, understanding lease terms for a car or apartment, or analyzing situations at a job. I don't want my students to be passive or miss opportunities for being part of a discussion because a text is something they cannot approach. I think students need experiences being challenged, so that they will take the challenge later on too and challenge their continual thinking and learning and engaging in various conversations. – National Writing Project teacher
Whether they are college bound or not, we need students to be provided the opportunities to develop the skills to read and critically think about anything they read - be it a lengthy scholarly article, a blog post, or be it the constitution of the United States. By educating our youth to read and critically examine what they read we are helping to create an educated and informed society. I want to know that my students are able to go out into the “world” and make informed decisions about such things as the rules that govern our society, the politicians that are elected who shape the future of our nation, to the fine print on a credit card policy that can affect their future financial standing. – National Writing Project teacher
The value of teaching students to engage with long and challenging texts is that it's a worthwhile journey. There's something about staying with a problem until you get it (or work through it or wrestle with it or whatever) that is satisfying in and of itself. I'd like to think I'm teaching them to value the act of learning for its own sake. I know a lot of us choose an inquiry approach to teaching writing, and for me a student's inquiry starts to get interesting once you get beyond the givens and the knowns. That's the kind of learning I want them to value. I hear a lot of education people talk about the future and that we're preparing students to solve problems that we don't know the answer to. How else do you get there unless you critically examine challenging ideas? I suppose the question is, can't you do that without reading long and challenging texts, but I prefer to do things like blast through texts like The Tempest in one or two classes and then asking the students, "Now what just happened?" I could spoon-feed it to them over the course of a month, but the ideas they generate on their own when they have to deal with that long and challenging text is worth it. – National Writing Project teacher
The main purpose and value of critically reading long and challenging texts is that there are a whole lot of ideas and concepts that simply cannot be reduced to short and simple texts without seriously compromising their meaning or value. It absolutely remains a critical skill for students today, if for no other reason than the problems that the world faces are increasingly complex and challenging. This truth informs writing, be it fiction or non-fiction. Moreover, with the breakdown of traditional forms of publishing and, in some cases, editorial review makes critical reading more important than ever. All readers must now be readers, researchers, and editors perforce. I often say to students that if you do not learn how to read challenging texts critically, it is very likely that someone, somewhere will simply take advantage of them or dupe them. Worse still, they might not even now it. – National Writing Project teacher
When it comes to students "reading deeply" I strongly believe students struggle with the concept of thinking critically. Students have information thrown at them in fast, small bits. To get a student to sit down with an authentic article and have a conversation with it, is very challenging. Students don't ask questions of the reading and wonder if it is valid. They just take it most times at face value. Most responses are simply "yes, I like it", or "No, I think the article was dumb". – National Writing Project teacher
Distraction and time management are hot button issues for teachers
The topic which generated perhaps the most intense discussion was that of “digital distractions” and their impact on today’s teens. Overwhelming majorities of survey participants agreed with the assertion that “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans” (87%) and that “today’s students are too ‘plugged in’ and need more time away from their digital technologies” (86%).
The former statement suggesting that digital technologies create an easily distracted generation elicited consistent responses across all subgroups of teachers, with no notable differences across teachers’ age, grade level taught, or years in the classroom. The latter statement suggesting students are “too plugged in” resonated slightly more with older teachers in the sample and among high school teachers. Among teachers ages 55 and older, 41% “strongly agree” with this statement, compared with 37% of teachers ages 35-54 and 32% of teachers ages 22-34. Interestingly, years teaching does not correlate with responses to this item. And while 32% of 6th-8th grade teachers “strongly agree” today’s students are “too plugged in,” the same is true of 39% of 9th-10th grade teachers and 37% of 11th-12th grade teachers. While these differences are notable, they are fairly small.
Moreover, in contrast to the many positive aspects of learning in a digital age teachers point to, nearly two-thirds of the AP and NWP teachers surveyed see digital technologies as “doing more to distract students than to help them academically.” Fully 64% of survey respondents agree to some extent with this notion, including 17% who “strongly agree,” indicating that while these teachers generally embrace the power of the internet and other digital tools to encourage and foster greater learning, many also worry that today’s digital environment results in more distracted students. High school teachers express more concern than middle school teachers when it comes to digital distractions. One in five 11th-12th grade teachers (19%) “strongly agree” that today’s digital tools do more to distract their students than to help them in the classroom, as do 17% of 9th-10th grade teachers. Among middle school teachers, 12% “strongly agree” this is the case.
Asked about their students’ ability to multi-task in an age of constant information and distraction, teachers are more divided, with 46% agreeing that today’s students are “very skilled” in this area and 53% disagreeing. Surprisingly, teachers of middle school students are more likely to say this is true than are those teaching high school students. Among 6th-8th grade teachers, 54% agree to some degree with this statement, including 13% who “strongly agree.” Slightly fewer 11th-12th grade teachers (49%) agree at least somewhat that today’s students are “very skilled” multi-taskers. Even fewer 9th-10th grade teachers (45%) agree at least somewhat that today’s students are skilled multi-taskers.
Teachers with more years in the classroom are actually more likely to agree with this statement than are those who have been in the classroom 15 years or fewer. Half of more experienced teachers (50%) agree at least somewhat that their students are skilled multi-taskers; that figure drops to 45% among newer teachers. This is a small difference, but may indicate that more experienced teachers see today’s generation comparing favorably to prior generations on this skill, particularly given the amount of information and constant communication today’s students are exposed to.
In focus groups, participants expressed concern about the following elements of “digital culture” and their impact on students’ ability to focus and their time management:
- Students’ “overexposure” to technology—and the multi-tasking that often accompanies the use of these technologies—contributes to lack of focus and diminished ability to retain knowledge
- Students do not set aside enough time for crucial tasks, and often use the various digital tools at their disposal to “waste time” and procrastinate
- Some students’ “addiction” to online gaming and video games consumes their time and attention
- Students are so often “plugged in” that they are missing out on the world around them
- “Overexposure” and “overuse” of digital technologies is not actually making students more technologically literate or more efficient
In online focus groups with AP teachers, participants were specifically asked if they were “concerned that students are overexposed to technology.” Nearly all participants answered affirmatively that they see their students as “overexposed,” and expressed concern about the impact digital technologies might be having on their students both in terms of their performance in school as well as their wellbeing outside of school. Several participants worried that social media, cell phones, and other tech gadgets are being “abused” by students, and that students are “overstimulated” by doing too many things at once.
Moreover, many teachers worry that these tools are adversely impacting students’ time management skills, fostering a (sometimes false) sense that all tasks can be completed quickly and at the last minute because so much information is so easily available. Several teachers suggested that it is critical for students to learn time management skills in their middle and high school years, or else it may harm their future success. They see time management skills as becoming increasingly important in a fast-paced digital world; at the same time, they see the skill potentially declining in their students.
Yet, almost as many teachers argued that today’s students are not more easily distracted than prior generations, citing examples of students engaging with assignments over long periods of time. The difference, some teachers suggest, is that today’s students are easily bored by information that is presented in “traditional” ways and that teachers need to adjust their methods to engage students using the digital tools and formats that hold their attention. Some argue that today’s students are able to handle more information at one time because of the digital environment in which they have grown up, and that rather than being described as “easily distracted,” they should be viewed as being highly skilled at dividing their attention across several things at one time.
They just surf the Internet and mess around with Facebook and every other thing, they’ll do it until 11:00 or 12:00 or 1:00, and then they’ll think they can do their project in one hour. I think that’s the biggest problem; while the Internet can be a strength, it’s also a huge problem, even in the classroom, unless you got it set up to monitor every screen… they’re going to be looking at pictures of their latest film star, music star or anything else. They will do anything to not do work; and it’s a real problem at home. — Teacher at College Board School
Tabbed browsing has made things so much worse…It makes things so much worse and so much harder because you don’t even know when you’re in your g-mail. People are messaging you and let’s say you’re trying to do whatever and then it’s like, ding! You’re like, “Oh, what is it?” Then you’ve got to chat. Then you’re like, okay, I’ve taken care of that, I’m going back to what I need to do and then it’s like, ding!...I can’t even imagine for kids how many tabs they have open. — Teacher at College Board School
[The internet] does make research so much easier and it’s easy to get things done if you put in the time and you focus. So even though students kind of wait until the last minute at 11:00, they probably can get a lot of assignments done in a short period of time if they focused. But because of Facebook, because of tab browsing, the reality is they’re not focusing. They’re so used to multi-tasking in every other part of their life that when it does come down to that one assignment the only way they’re going to get it done and do it well is to focus, they can’t. They can’t turn other things off because they’re so used to having everything on all the time. — Teacher at College Board School
Since they don’t have to schedule time to do all these things and since they feel that they can do in five hours what would’ve taken me when I was in high school perhaps a good month…they can literally procrastinate. I think our curriculum - at least as I see it now and even with the common core standards - in no way addresses these time management skills, which are so critical. How then do we teach time management with this technology that will forever be used, it’s forever going to be improved upon, it is only going to become faster and it’s only going to allow them to multitask at a quicker pace, expect – and the expectations are so much greater then? If we can’t do that, then we’re not preparing them for college work, and we’re certainly not preparing them for the workforce. — Teacher at College Board School
Interestingly, for the last few years I have been having my ninth grade students read Nicholas Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" from The Atlantic, which addresses this very issue. I have them read the article and write a response. By a slim majority, they themselves believe that digital technologies might in fact be undermining their ability to focus and shorten their attention spans. – National Writing Project teacher
I'm not sure if it’s apathy, but I do believe that the Internet, as it is used now, allows students to delay time management. If I had to point to one issue which affects the entire human race that certainly affects adolescence, it’s time management skills, and this is the age from, say, thirteen to eighteen or nineteen, when these skills become more and more of a requirement. It’s no longer optional that you understand how to manage your time; it’s a requirement because it is what’s expected of them as they move into adulthood and as they move into their professional and personal lives. The Internet has completely changed, irrevocably changed how time management skills are going to be taught, how they’re going to be used... – National Writing Project teacher
There is an essay for my tenth grade English Language Arts class that is due next Friday…The essay has been up there for a good six weeks now, yet I’m hearing feedback from the students that I’m working with that “Well, the information is there for me; therefore, I can just do this a couple of days beforehand. I’ll have plenty of time to get it done.” And I hear this with many students in many classes – since it’s so easy to access the website, since they don’t have to put away time, schedule time to go to a library, since they don’t have to schedule time to use a typewriter…I don’t want to make a blanket statement and say that’s true for every student, because it’s not. We do have students here who do an excellent job of managing their time and using the technology effectively and efficiently, but I would say that is overall the biggest problem I see with students these days. – National Writing Project teacher
I have watched my own children very engaged in authentic conversations for hours on social media. So I guess that I would have to say that it would just depend on the students. I know many of my students would not be distracted, because they are very task-oriented; however, I have several students who would be totally distracted by everything that is going on, Facebook for example. These are the same students that struggle to stay on-task everyday in most environments. Students need to learn to focus, because the world we live in is full of distractions. – National Writing Project teacher
When students are using technology, the hour zooms by and they are completely engaged. I find this true, for example, when they create digital stories. I also agree with [other teacher’s] point about online distractions. When doing research online for a report, it is so tempting for students to open another screen and check out Derrick Rose's new lightweight basketball shoes. In fact, I think I might check those out right now...my daughter has been asking for a pair....and then I'll check my school e-mail...and then my g-mail account...be back soon! – National Writing Project teacher (during online focus group)
I had my students read "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" at the start of the school year for the past couple of years. Across the board, they say that Carr is selling their generation short. They feel that they can do both deep reading and the shorter, connective bursts of reading online – the two aren't mutually exclusive. To use Carr's analogy, they like to jet ski and scuba dive. Like Joel's students, mine can be absorbed in digital composition or the free reading of actual books for up to (and over) an hour. Actually the length of their attention spans in my classroom often correlates to those times when the conditions for sustained learning aren't present (e.g. the day before Christmas vacation, the days when teacher doesn't have his act together, emergency preparedness drill days). So I disagree with this and see it as an attention-span awareness issue. – National Writing Project teacher
I don't know if it's a question of attention spans. I believe digital technologies have fostered a sense of instant gratification. If they wonder about something, they Google it. If they want to see a trailer of a movie that they just read about, they can to a website or app. I don't think it undermines student abilities to focus, I think technologies can hasten the information students seek. It's up to parents and teachers to teach students how to judge which information, which interests and inquiries, are worth seeking and when. Follow through and accountability must be explored. These are important discussions to have. Essential. – National Writing Project teacher
Considering my own students over the years, I don't agree that digital technologies diminish students' attention spans. I know students who will read for hours and spend extra time outside of school writing and working on projects because they are engaged and enthusiastic in learning more about topics that interest them. If anything, technology tools provide my students opportunities to participate in learning activities and extend their learning beyond the school day if they want. Students write entries and comment on each other's Edmodo posts in the evenings and weekends without any requirement from me to do so. – National Writing Project teacher
Finally, some teachers in this study feel that the question of “digital distraction” may be a red herring, diverting attention away from other issues that need to be addressed in the classroom and society at large. Several suggest that the notion of student “distraction” should be reframed not as a problem with today’s students, but as a problem with teachers, parents, and the broader educational system. For these teachers, the “distracted” label is drawing attention away from a lack of technological skill or understanding among some parents, teachers, and administrators, which they see as the main issue to be addressed. Several labeled it an “excuse” adults use to avoid changing their own behavior and teaching methods. Others point out that the issue of “distraction,” valid or not, is a moot point; digital technologies will continue to emerge and shape the world in which teens and adults live, and educators must adapt to this environment.
I think this is not only an issue for students and digital natives, but all of us. Before smartphones and the internet, I was not nearly the multi-tasker that I am today. We have all become accustomed to checking email regularly throughout the day, and while we may be hesitant to admit it, most of us are also interacting with Facebook, Twitter, texts, and other social media throughout the day as well. There are so many things that now fight for our attention, but this is the world we live in and I believe our responsibility is to give our students opportunities and guidance in managing their time. Three years ago when my school first introduced laptops and a model that allows for quite a bit of student freedom, and consequently encourages creativity and critical thinking, our students floundered. Access to the internet was overwhelming - so much music to find and download, friends to chat with, status to update. Most struggled to keep up with their work. There were many faculty debates about how to lock things down and take power and control out of the hands of students, but in the end no school-wide mandates were ever enacted. Today these same students have become efficient multi-taskers. Do they still check their Facebook accounts? Yes, of course they do, but even some of the rowdiest, least academically-focused students have learned how to balance. – National Writing Project teacher
I think that point of view described in your question is a convenient excuse for adults who do not want to take the time to learn about burgeoning developments in technology. Kids have been bored by things long before I was born and will continue to be long after I'm gone. When you learn how to use a tool, when you learn how to mentor a tool, then you have learned how to guide an adolescent to get the most out of it. Learning and thinking is never boring. If a kid is bored by technology or has lost focus or attention then he isn't learning and thinking. It is a people (pedagogy) problem and not a tool problem. – National Writing Project teacher
The problem with the argument is that, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. Students are using digital technologies and tools outside of class (and often in classes without teachers' permission). These are likely going to be job-related skills as well. Are students distracted and often floundering at multi-tasking. Sure. But I think this speaks to larger challenges with updating classroom pedagogy than with a problem with students. – National Writing Project teacher
I tend to be on the fence about this statement. Students today generally have a shorter attention span, but it is due to how information is delivered to students today. The technologies mentioned above are not to blame for students having a short attention span. – National Writing Project teacher
I wouldn't say that any of these technologies are shortening their attention spans. Look at how long kids will play a video game -- for hours and hours and hours. If anything, right or wrong, I think students have less tolerance for the boring stuff we try to shove down their throats. In some ways they are saying, "Teacher you are boring. I want you to entertain me." Now, obviously, I'm not saying that teachers should turn into some comedian routine just for the sake of entertaining kids, but we must consider all of the other things out there in the world that do grab kids attention. Their attention span is still there, it is just more selective about what it will devote itself to. As teachers we must take this into consideration and plan things for kids that they will be willing to spend their time working on. A few months ago, I had a couple of students who worked on a project for our class using video game components. They spent HOURS and HOURS working on this project and actually had a very in depth understanding of what they created. – National Writing Project teacher
I know when I have kids editing video to make a movie they care about they are fixated to the point where time ceases to exist. The bell will ring and I will hear, "Is that our bell? Geez. This class is too short." That sounds like focus to me. I also know that when my 10th graders read their independent novels in class they are pin drop quiet and immersed in their books. You can almost smell their brains working…I don't think attention spans are shortened on a physiological level -- I think that we must have real conversations and present thoughtful articles to our students about how our digital practices might be impacting or undermining our writing, reading, and thinking. We can't make Words With Friends or Facebook or Google Docs or cell phones go away, but we can have conversations in a valued literacy community (our classrooms) about the positive and negative impact of these tools. The ability to move between different media, different sources of information to piece together your thoughts while being bombarded by fragments... I guess these abilities might look like a short attention span, but maybe these are habits that students have developed to adapt to their media environments. – National Writing Project teacher