Help! How Do I Get My Kids to Research Better?

Help! How Do I Get My Kids to Research Better?

Kids suck at researching.
Heck, let’s face it. If social media is any indicator, so do adults, amirite?!

Sure we all “learned” how to, and actually wrote, research papers in school. Yep, we also learned to cite sources. Am I too old to mention the dreaded numbered notecards with citations? 

But this is a different world. And as my friend Kevin Honeycutt mentions, if you’ve ever had a loved one receive terrible news from a doctor, you probably became a moderate-expert on that disease by midnight of the same day, right? Why? Because it mattered. And we now have the world’s information at our fingertips…if only we knew how to truly harness the power beyond WebMD.

Which many of us don’t.

In fact, I might even hesitate to question how many of us actually became experts on our loved one’s disease. Not due to the fact the info isn’t out there and not because we’re dumb.

It’s because most people simply don’t know how to research well.

And I’m not even talking about being a PhD level researcher. I’m just talking about “learning some factual stuff” research!

In my work with educators around PBL, a frequently-asked follow-up question I’ll get emailed 2 months later is, “My kids suck at researching. And so they just don’t. I feel like I’m fighting them tooth and nail to dig deeper and they just refuse. HELP!” 

(was that a question?)

I have answers. And they come in the form of Research Drills.


Remember sports practice? I do. We got better at discrete skills by practicing them in drills that prepared us for practice games (scrimmages) which prepared us for The Big Game.

(little-known true fact, I once was a starter on my 8th grade basketball team, so I’ll be using basketball as a metaphor. I wish I had a pic to share. I’m also from Kansas, so, you know, Jayhawk basketball.) 

Research drills.

Yep, I’m talking about a decidedly non-PBL approach to having better PBL experiences. Sure, we could absolutely practice these skills during our PBL unit. But honestly, it takes a while to learn them on their own. And when we’re in PBL, I don’t want kids’ lack of fundamental research skills to get in the way of fun, engaged learning.

Just as I want them to use sites like BibMe, CitationMachine, or EasyBib so that remembering whether we use a ; or a , or whether we italicize or underline doesn’t slow down their learning, I don’t want their lack of research skills to slow down their bigger PBL learning.

So toward that end, here are some fundamental drills you might want to practice with your students. They should be fun. They should be done with some urgency.

And these drills should be done in small, bite-sized pieces and for only those students who need it.
I’m pretty sure Devonte’ Graham is done with his “how to dribble” drills and on to more complex practice, right? 

Super basics first: (aka, how to dribble)
  • Be a better Googler. I find most kids I work with (and to be honest, too many adults) aren’t great at getting great results the first time they search for something online.
    • be smarter at using targeted words and phrases.
    • look deeper than the initial description.
    • stop clicking on the Ads.
    • decide when to use Google Scholar.
    • be sure you’re grabbing timely research.
    • see even more Google tips here and here and here. And even here. And the video below.
      (seriously, I find SO MANY teachers, let alone students, who don’t know about these tips. So take a moment to click through those links. For realz.)

  • Look beyond Google (and I’m not talking about just using another search engine).
    • find and interview experts who work in that field. *gasp* We have to talk to people?!
    • consider looking at actual books for some of your topics. Your students will be amused. And annoyed when they realize you’re serious. And they’ll be learning.

Interviewing and looking in books is such a big deal for all sorts of experiences and soft-skill development. Don’t leave them out of your research-options basket, even if you don’t use them every single time. Because books aren’t always the most accurate sources of info nowadays.

Beyond just basics: (how to dribble and run)

In order to both dribble a basketball and run at the same time, we have to practice, right? And beginners might need to start out slowly, all together.

One of the beginning drills for research I like to use with kids is to ask them simple, fact-based questions. Here’s the process: I ask the question aloud and they quick-Google to find answer. With this process, we practice 1) info accuracy, 2) depth of answers/info, 3) quality source-gathering, 4) triangulation of data, 5) speed of research, and 6) speed of typing. Oh, and of course, we’re always 7) community-building.

Me: “First question, What’s the state grass of Kansas?”

They dive in to start quickly Googling for results. I walk around the room and remind them to hold their answers quiet. Remind them to check their sources to be sure the info is trustable. (Need help with that?) I remind them to check carefully because they don’t want to blurt out a stupid answer. When they think they have it, they say they do, but I ask that they continue to hold the answer for a bit longer (we’re starting slowly. Blurting is encouraged later). Then once many have said they know (providing for processing time and equalizing the field for slow typers/readers), I pick someone to share what they think it is.

Student 1: “It’s the Little Bluestem!”

And without saying yes or no, I ask if other students would confirm or deny that fact:

Me: “Ooohhh, the Little Bluestem?” (I eyeball his page to be sure it’s a legit source–if it’s not legit, I ask where he found it and how does he know he can trust it. If he’s only looking at the preview, I ask him to actually click into the site and read! But let’s say for this demo it’s legit: “Interesting! Can someone confirm or deny that fact? Is Jordan right? Now don’t just trust Jordan. He’s smart, but sometimes he’s wrong. Like maybe he’s wrong now (I say suspiciously). So confirm or deny with evidence. Go!”

When someone confirms (I let them blurt now), I ask what site they’re using. And if it’s the same as the first responder, Jordan (who just now tells us what he used), I say…

Me: “Cool. Yes, Jordan found his answer on the same site, but we can’t confirm he’s accurate by just reading the same page! In order to confirm, we need to see it elsewhere too, on another legit site.” The kids who found the fact on a Jordan-alike site need to go back in and dig to confirm it from another site. Most of the time, that’s most of the kids.

If someone denies the first answer (Jordan’s), I ask them for their answer, their evidence, and see if anyone confirms/denies that answer. This continues, with increasing urgency each question I ask, until we have found at least 3 different, trustable sources with the correct answer. Then we move on to the next question.

With each question I ask, I try to keep a balance of fun and urgent. Lots of laughing. Lots of “let’s try to keep our smart selves from sounding dumb with bad info,” and things like that. Each question gets more complicated. More abstract. More difficult to find results for and more difficult to find confirming results. As the responses get complicated with being able to be confirmed or denied, I slow it down and ask for precision before responding. And we pull together to try to find a 2nd or 3rd site. It’s less of a competition and more of a, “let’s figure this booger out!”

This process might take 2-3 episodes, lasting 20-ish minutes each. You think that’s a lot of precious class time, right? What’s the alternative? Rush through it? Ignore it? Allow kids to be crappy researchers? This is a great way to pull all kids into the process in a very organic way.

Advanced practice: (aka, playing cut-throat scrimmage after drills)

I liked to have students “scrimmage” before even the initial phase of official PBL research. It’s kind of an appetizer. 

Sometimes the challenge/question is rough. The kids might not know a lot. I want them to be able to sink their teeth into the topic a bit so they know it’s conquerable. But if they know NOTHING, we have to start some where. It’s not a real game, but strategic practice.

So let’s say I’ve launched the question: “What should the US position be regarding our aging nuclear weapons program?” The kids (say 5th and 6th graders — yes this is a real example from my classroom) know NOTHING about ANYTHING. So we consider what we do know (some words, really). They begin to dig in and learn a little bit, starting with pretty much, “US nuclear weapons.” We’ve not yet done the Know/ Need to Know/ Resources bit yet. The kids are nervous and feeling like they don’t even know where to begin. I might ask some ignition questions: “Is there a map of where our nukes are kept?” “What types of nukes does the US have?” “How old are the oldest ones?” “What’s our current policy regarding dismantling nukes? Do we have one?”

It’s some quick and dirty research all together where they start slow, but once they start finding answers (and dropping them into a Google Doc — WITH citations), the energy in the room increases and they can begin to think about questions they might have. There is a lot of talking. There’s a LOT of reinforcement from me, and encouraging them to keep reading. Soon, they’re shouting out what they’re finding and where they’re finding it.

Is this perfect PBL? Nope. It’s a scrimmage. They’re practicing figuring out that they can dig into topics they have no clue about. I’m role modeling questions we can begin to ask when we know NOTHING. And they’re doing it. It ain’t pretty. But it will be by game time!

Soon we know enough we can step back and begin to think about our challenge and start working on the Know/Need to know/Resources chart and we’re off an running with real PBL.


These three drills should be run according your own dialect for your own personality and your own kids. Coach K and Coach Bill Self probably run basketball drills that look pretty similar, but in very different ways. Make these yours. And let me know what works for you and how you modified it.

Good luck out there and play hard! 

If you want to know more about supporting PBL in your school and community, let me know! The daily practicalities are precisely the stumbling blocks where new-to-PBL teachers decide that PBL isn’t for them. And with over 12 years of K12 PBL experience, I can help navigate and knock flat those pesky daily hurdles for real change, right now.


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Written by GingerLewman

  1. Ginger,
    Thank you for this. I shared the article with my entire staff.

    • Yay! I’m glad you found it useful and I really appreciate you sharing it. <3
      Let me know if there are other questions around PBL or other active learning you might have. I might not have an answer, but I might be able to connect you with someone who does!

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