Research should be fun! Yet it often involves restricted topics, rules, and requirements that can limit a student’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm. Encourage students to follow their questions by implementing simple, small research activities about topics they are curious about.
In his post, Cal describes famous physicist Richard Feynman as a graduate student who creates a notebook entitled, “Notebook of Things I Don’t Know About.” Feynman proceeded to fill this empty notebook as he learned.
Now I’m not a physicist, but I can appreciate a notebook with the title, “Things I Don’t Know About.” I started my own with one of my upcycled notebooks as I was working on an online class. I used the notebook to take notes, record questions, and consider new ideas.
What a great teaching tool! This is a brilliant way to help students practice and record their concentrated work on a project.
If your students participate in genius hour, passion projects, or isearch/personal research activities, the “Notebook of Things I Don’t Know About” can be a concrete way your students keep track of what they are learning. As Cal Newport points out, “translate your growing knowledge of something hard into a concrete form and you’re more likely to keep investing the mental energy needed to keep learning.”
We know as our students see their work and how much they have learned, they are motivated to keep learning! As they work on their research, they have a notebook that once was empty — and is now getting filled with their learning.
You don’t have to implement a formal genius hour in order for your students to create their notebooks. You don’t have to even call it genius hour or a passion project (though when students learn the origin of passion projects, they will probably think that’s very exciting!). What you do need is your students to find topics they are interested in that are deep enough to research.
Spend plenty of time allowing your students to generate ideas. Use their newly titled “Notebook of Things I Don’t Know About” to brainstorm ideas. Some students will identify their focus right away, and others will cast about randomly. It’s so important that they begin with a topic that they are passionate about, but that can also be researched within the time you have allotted.
It might not be practical to sustain the research for an entire school year; you may want to use this to teach research skills in a six-week time frame or the length of one grading period.
2. Keeping the Energy Going: Peer Support Groups
It can be difficult for students to stay motivated. The initial excitement of a project can wane fairly quickly for some students. One way to keep kids charged up is to have regularly scheduled group “meetings” where students share what they’ve learned, questions they still have, or problems they’ve encountered. Peer group “support” meetings can be helpful in keeping students accountable. Afterall, they can’t report the same findings week after week — peers will call them on that! Plus, peers can offer questions, ideas, encouragement, and support.
3. Keep the Energy Going: Make It Public
If you are fortunate to have wall space, give your students a chunk of it to record where they are and what they’ve discovered. If you don’t have enough wall space for each student, you can hang a “What I’ve Learned…” or “Fun Facts” piece of butcher paper on a wall and allow students to share.
4. Teacher Conferences
This is key! Why is it that students can go off the rails so quickly?! I use checklists to keep track of when I conference with students. This is so important! You should meet with each student regularly. Here is where the student’s “Notebook of Things I Don’t Know About” can come in handy. Use your conferences to make notes of next steps you want students to take and write those notes directly in student notebooks (and in your notes).
It helps to have students who have difficulty focusing on a task to write what they plan to do before your next conference.
5. Assessing – Formative
Oh yeah. We’ve got to assess. For most of us, we can’t just put a smiley face sticker into our gradebooks. The notebook does give you a concrete measure of how well your students are delving into their topics. You can use notebooks for formative assessments, or students to use their notebooks to provide a mini lesson to your class or a partner that you can listen in on and assess.
Encourage students to continue generating questions about their topics as they research. What else don’t they know? Peer groups or partners can be very helpful with this.
6. Assessing – Summative
At the end of the project, your students will have notebooks that are full of what they’ve learned — including notes, drawings, charts, interviews(perhaps!), clippings or articles that they’ve found, statistics, facts sheets, quotes, photographs, as well as any other materials they’ve gathered and learned from.
You could assess the completed notebook, but students should really have the opportunity to share what they’ve learned by giving a talk, presentation, or gallery walk. Don’t forget to include the administration, school community, and parents in the event.
7. Keeping it Small
One little (upcycled) notebook is easy enough for students to manage. Tuck it into a folder, accordion folder, or binder pocket. Provide time for students to dig into their topics and give them opportunities for a turn-and-talk debrief at the end of their research time. This could be as simple as a once-a-week event.
Be sure to keep your own personal research notebook that you can share with your students. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to learn more about cave art, mountain climbing, or Robert Louis Stevenson’s life. Dig in!
Why it works…
The “Notebook of Things I Don’t Know About” gives students a place to collect what they’ve learned and a tangible creation at the end of the research journey.
Need a “ready to go” research notebook?
I’ve got you covered. Check out this research notebook that’s available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.