A Beginner’s Guide to AP Research: Working Beside Them

AP Research fell into my lap this year unexpectedly, and after a couple weeks of outright panic about prepping myself to teach another AP course, I got kind of excited.  I haven’t taught really intense research at any point in my career, but the philosophies of the AP Capstone program immediately reminded me of the IB Theory of Knowledge course which I was lucky enough to teach and still refuse to shut up about, as any of my colleagues can attest to.  Engaging students with prolonged, intellectually challenging subject matter and tasks is one of the most rewarding experiences we can offer to our students.  

And it’s also one of the most overwhelming.

I immediately started thinking about all of my Theory of Knowledge kids years ago who were very good at school but really had never been pushed to engage independently with dense concepts in an intellectual way.  AP Research students have the advantage of having spent AP Seminar the year prior learning the basics of research (and mine have the bonus benefit of having done so under the tutelage of Moving Writers’ own outstanding Hattie Maguire!).  But that still means they walked into my room a few weeks ago facing the monumental task of inserting themselves into a field of research and (eventually) proposing that their findings belong in the conversation amidst all the other researchers–the ones with doctorates and the ones writing books and all that stuff.  Intimidating and exciting.  

It can also be a wildly unfocused and exhausting experience.  So I made a choice early in my planning for the course that is already paying dividends:  I would become a researcher alongside them.  I’m fairly certain I’ll revisit this philosophical approach a few times this year here on the blog, but for now I thought I’d share two immediate benefits I’ve already enjoyed with my young researchers as a result of doing the work alongside them.

Finding the Right (Key)words

While I certainly didn’t anticipate all of the struggles the kids would have during their early efforts at source hunting, one huge problem I did anticipate was the ability to find the right search phrasing to maximize their efficacy.  We workshopped some ideas for this sort of issue early on, but I know from AP Language that kids are often inexperienced at evaluating “useful” language in a field, even if they’re fairly avid readers.  To some extent, recognizing field-specific jargon is a matter of reading experience over time.  

So how do you help shortcut that learning experience for students who have less than a full semester to get real smart real fast in a given field of study?  Having dug around a bit for some good Standards Based Grading articles (my chosen research subject), I had actually discovered that I wasn’t as good at this as I thought I was!  Some search engines seemed devoid of the subject completely, others reminded me why Boolean search phrasing matters (“standard” and “based” and “grading” turn out to be pretty high-frequency terms in academic research!).  But it also helped me remember how often research folks end up finding language that’s common to them but foreign to the layman.  Once I stumbled onto an article about “competency-based grading” I was able to open up some new avenues…and when I recalled the name “Marzano” I was really off and running.  

But letting the kids hear this narrative of frustration from me was important.  I had already had three conversations with kids looking to switch topics, and in each case it was because they “couldn’t find anything.”  We got two of them off and running once we considered my experience in light of their struggles.  One of them, for example, wanted to examine life contentment and “Hustle Culture” but eventually had to reconsider his search language completely (nobody seems to be research that mostly internet-based phrase, but psychology is bursting with studies about longitudinal happiness and survey data about contentment under various life circumstances).  

Passive Sourcing via Social Media

My second revelation was unrelated to my chosen research topic, but I definitely wouldn’t have considered it if I didn’t already have the nerdy habit of being constantly curious.  With my Twitter open at the start of class one afternoon, I spotted a filmmaker I follow talking about a movie I love.  More specifically, he was explaining why a camera technique I’d never heard of (I’m a film geek so I’ve heard of quite a few!) was what allowed one of the greatest action sequences in modern history to unfold without the viewer completely losing track of the main character and his actions.  (You don’t care about the details but it’s Mad Max Fury Road and a technique called “axial cutting,” in case you actually do…)  What occurred to me suddenly (aside from the fact that I need to go watch that movie again soon–so good!) was that little “Twitter discoveries” like this have been endless sources of new knowledge for me.  In an age of social media for all sorts of frivolous and distracting and silly things, it’s easy to forget that the distance between us and experts in every imaginable field has also never been narrower.

I didn’t even put a mini-lesson together for this one!  It was a work day for their second round of source hunting, so I quickly tossed this item onto the daily agenda as the bell was ringing and simply told them the story I just told you (they weren’t very interested in the film technique either) and showed them a bit of the thread so they could see just how thorough the content was–social media doesn’t necessarily mean superficial information.  

Some seemed skeptical, so I pointed out how many OTHER people in far-reaching fields I follow on social media: NASA engineers, college professors who study best practices for writing, Russian military experts (although I’d just as soon have had no war in Ukraine and no need for their expertise), and on and on and on.  

There was a moment where I wished I HAD taken a second to build some sort of slide presentation to help them think this through, but then a student piped up and made that completely unnecessary.  “That happened for me last year!”  Despite this being my whole great idea three minutes ago I found myself sort of startled: “Wait, really?  Would you mind sharing?”  He told the class that his interest in his subject (artificial intelligence) predated his AP Seminar class, so he was already following a lot of people in the field by last spring when he officially chose this as his area of study.  He had multiple research sources sitting in his social media feed before he even selected his summer reading book.  

I couldn’t promise the same experience for all my researchers, but considering this is just like passive income in your investment portfolio…the upside is impossible to argue against.  You take the time to follow a few field experts and you just might earn a huge payoff just from flicking through your social media account one night.

I’m hopeful that my own wanderings in the vast world of research continues to allow me to anticipate my students’ challenges before they become outright hardships.  It’s a bit of extra work some nights, but I’m fairly certain it’s less work over the long run than having to rescue many of my young researchers from the depths of research hell individually.  There are plenty of mistakes for them to make and learn from over the course of the year–helping them to avoid the largest pitfalls and deadest of dead-ends seems like time well spent.  


How do you help your young researchers to navigate the complexities of complicated thinking and research writing?  Follow us on Facebook or let me know on Twitter @ZigThinks !

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