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How podcasts are making students better researchers

By Nicole Krueger 7/13/2017 Literacies

What teachers say: “Write a research paper.”

What students hear: “Google it.”

It’s no secret that today’s students conduct their research mostly through search engines. When you’ve got everything you could ever want to know right at your fingertips, why bother combing through online databases or poring over reference books?

But that attitude has many teachers and librarians worried that the ability to conduct actual, painstaking research is a dying art.

“Some teachers report that for their students, ‘doing research’ has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment,” says Pew Research Center.

Three in five teachers agree that although today’s technologies provide access to a much greater depth and breadth of information, they also make it harder for students to find credible sources of information. In fact, more than 40 percent of students say they have trouble evaluating sources when researching, and many are entering college without learning basic research skills like how to find and vet information from a wide variety of respected sources.

“For the most part, when students get to college they’re finding that research is at a whole new level they haven’t really explored that much before,” says Megan Shulman, catalog and reference librarian at Jackson State Community College in Tennessee. “What is credible research? What is an evidence-based article? They’re used to going out and finding something on a website, so the idea of peer review is new to them.”

As a librarian, Shulman has become increasingly concerned about the research gap — particularly for students in the college’s high school dual enrollment classes, who don’t have many opportunities to interact with library staff. Although instructors are aware of their dearth of research skills, they often don’t have time to address it in class.

To help college instructors bring their high school students up to speed, Shulman created a series of mini-podcasts on how to do research and made them available for instructors to assign as homework.

The podcasts, which range from 2-minute segments to 15-minute discussions, address topics such as how to use databases or what peer-reviewed research is. The most popular of the series, an interview-style podcast on why research is important, explains what the act of research entails and why students should seek out scholarly sources. It helps them be good Knowledge Constructors, a crucial element of the ISTE Standards for Students.

“These have been a big hit because instructors can post them on their course websites as homework and can make sure the students received the material, and they still don’t lose precious instructional time,” she says. “Teachers have said they’ve helped immensely.”

Tips for podcasting success

Podcasts are a great way to slip in extra instruction on topics that aren’t directly related to the curriculum but can have a big impact on student success, Shulman says.

“It works best with things students need to know but that aren’t absolutely pertinent. Instead of taking time in class to talk about it, you can make a podcast, upload it to the course page, and students have a way to get the info without eating up the school day.”

She offers the following suggestions for getting started:

Keep it simple. When she first started making podcasts, Shulman intended to use a bunch of high-tech equipment in the school’s podcasting studio. She even bought books on editing — but it all proved too cumbersome. She ended up just using a handheld digital voice recorder.

Let it be imperfect. Shulman records one practice run-through and then a final version, and she doesn’t mind letting some mistakes or “ums” slip in. “Students know that we’re human too,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect or professional quality by any means.”

Try different formats. Instead of simply delivering the podcasts lecture-style, Shulman chose to conduct some of them as Q&A-style interviews with professors. The interaction between two people makes it a more engaging listen for students.

For school librarians who no longer have as much classroom time with students, podcasting offers a way to continue supporting teachers in their efforts to help nurture strong research skills.

“Librarianship is going more toward communication, and podcasting fits into that digital shift where we’re seeing information in different forms,” Shulman says. “They’re digital learning objects that can be placed in a course for students to use.”

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