Research Sprints and the Double-Edged Sword of Digital Literacy

by Gerard Dawson

Teachers of my generation occupy a unique place in the historical context of our profession.  We may have been introduced to things like the card catalog at the library and the note card system for keeping track of research notes, yet online research quickly became a dominant force in our educations.  I’d like to say that I’m just old enough to realize that these glowing blue screens can save us some work if used properly.

Among the areas of literacy instruction where teachers and students are moving from paper to screens, research seems like one of the more logical choices.  However, it also appears that teaching students to inform themselves by researching online is one of the more complex parts of this profession, regardless of your content area.  Teachers want students to be better researchers, but there is just so much to teach.

Today I will offer reasons for why digital research is a double-edged sword of opportunity and challenge for our instruction. Then, I’ll describe one idea for how we might teach students to research in a way that takes advantage of the great opportunity while addressing the many challenges.

The opportunities of digital research

Consider some of the unique opportunities afforded by online research tasks (in no particular order):

  • Students have the opportunity to create what Jim Burke would call a Digital Essay, using links and media to emulate the texts that we encounter as online readers.
  • Students can present information to an audience in a variety of engaging ways. Rehearsing this in school is practical for future professions when students present information, train others, or design anything.
  • Teachers have the opportunity to introduce databases to students.
  • Teachers can show students about verifying the reliability and determining the bias of sources (H/T to Carrie Ross for sharing a lesson with me that specifically taught these skills)
  • Teachers can help students use digital tools that help them save time when finding and organizing their information.

The challenges of digital research

But, there are so many lessons that feel essential if we are going to have students engage in digital research, including…

  • When to use databases vs. when to use Google
  • How to properly give credit for text, images, and video (The memes were a poorly delivered, joke, it seems)
  • How to determine the most important information in a source and ignore the rest, especially when under time or space constraints.
  • How to avoid “death by PowerPoint” when presenting information to your audience
  • How to paraphrase vs. quote directly
  • How to draw meaningful conclusions from research and avoid logical fallacies
  • How to interact with and take information from digital texts with unique features

With all of this to consider, is there any foundational pedagogical knowledge that we can draw from when deciding what and how to teach this stuff?

Digital reading is better…er…slower…er…something!

A study from Kol & Schcolnik, titled, “Enhancing Screen Reading Strategies,” looked at the benefits of teaching students specifically to overcome the difficulties unique to reading on a screen. In the introduction to their study, they paint a complex picture for what it means to engage in literacy activities on a device as opposed to on paper:

“Most research comparing reading in the two media… has shown that subjects take longer reading a text from the screen than reading the same text from paper…Some studies have looked at reading comprehension as well as speed and found no significant differences between reading from the screen and reading from paper…On the other hand, O’Hara and Sellen (1997) compared reading and writing in both media and concluded that whereas writing on-line offered clear advantages, reading on paper was far easier.” [emphasis mine]

This one summary of existing research in the field suggests that we are still figuring this stuff out as we go.  We might serve ourselves and our students well, then, if we begin to make our own instructional bets as to what we believe works best, testing and learning from our ideas.

One idea: the research sprint

One answer is to do less of the massive, semester-long research papers that are expected in some classes, and more tiny research sprints that resemble the shorter formative reading and writing tasks that are part of many classes.  This term, “research sprint,” is one that I originally encountered when reading about Dave Stuart Jr’s efforts to do as much reading and writing about student motivation as he could in a short, fixed time frame. 

Here’s an example:

Before reading an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s haunting, transcendent novel Beloved, I wanted students to develop some prior knowledge about the author,the book, and its historical and cultural context. So, students worked in groups of four to research a narrowly defined topic, and present just two slides to the class in two minutes.

The skill of focus was determining the important information and presenting it concisely.  The students had a short time frame to do the research (one full class period) and one other class period to design the slides and practice the presentations. I showed students examples of well and poorly designed slides, then had the students design and present their own. I think these sort of “research sprints” are important for teaching literacy today for a few reasons:


This slide is easier on the eyes. (Pairing fonts is about as artistic as I get.)


If this makes you feel like you’re in a meeting, you’re not alone.


  1. Outside of class, our students are very likely to conduct tiny bursts of research on their phones. Think about how the nature of conversation has changed, where one person can immediately fact check another. 
  2. This is manageable for teachers with a densely packed curriculum. It took less than three class periods to teach the lessons, give students work time while I conferenced with them, and hear the presentations in the research sprint described above.
  3. It allows teachers to focus on several small research skills throughout the year and have students get multiple practice opportunities with them. This feels better than having students conduct one massive research task.

The research sprint described above was a short opportunity for students to practice searching for, making meaning of, and presenting information, all digitally.  In order to properly address all of the opportunities and challenges listed above, students would benefit from  regularly engage in those sorts lower-stakes, not-too-long types of research activities.

How do you have students engage in research in ways other than the massive research project?  Please reply with your lessons ideas.

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