Using Social Media for Student Research, Part 1: Setting Up

My students are in a research lull.  They’ve finished they’re French Revolution research papers, but haven’t yet started the spring research paper, which takes most of the second semester.  So this is a good time for reflection on our research process.


My department is proud of our research program.  But we’ve also concluded that we need to supplement our excellent research program with a more developed program for the teaching of research skills.  In so doing, I think we have to consider carefully what counts as an important skill, and what counts as a source worth finding.


I have tended to be wary of students using websites in research.  My experience has been that students who rely heavily on websites tend to write pretty superficial work, because the websites that they use are pretty superficial.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.


Books and Computers at the New York Public Library

As I discussed in my previous post, there are a large number of thoughtful, scholarly blogs (for example, The Monkey Cage, a political science blog, or the faculty blog at the University of Chicago Law School, or even Nate Silver’s blog on political analysis, FiveThirtyEight). Blog posts on these sites aren’t scholarly articles in the traditional sense, but they aren’t what most people (including my students) think of when they think of webpages: they’re too analytical, too conceptual–too scholarly.  They’re not necessarily easy to turn up.


A simple Google search, or even a complicated one, may not turn them up.  You need what my colleague Steve Valentine calls “planned serendipity”–and for that, social media is perfect.  Once you find these sources, the payoff is high.  Research assignments that don’t allow, encourage, or even require students to use such sites limit student research.


So this year I’m going to try teaching students how to use social media to do research for their research papers.  In particular, I am going to train my students this year in the use of Twitter and RSS feeds as research tools to find sources online.  In this blog post I’m going to think through what I’ll tell my students about set up.  I’ll think through the actual process in a later post.


Here’s what I’ll tell my students about getting started:

What you’re looking for

Ultimately, you should be looking for blogs and websites.  It’s blog posts and good websites that contain the high-quality but hard-to-find scholarly writing out there.  It’s blog posts and good websites that contain the interesting facts or new perspectives that can enrich your research paper.  So ultimately what you’re are looking for is those high-quality blog posts and websites.


Secondarily, you’re looking for people to follow on Twitter.  Tweets themselves aren’t good research sources, of course.  A 140-character tweet doesn’t contain the substance that you need in a research source.  But Twitter is a useful way to find people that can lead you to the blog posts and websites you’re ultimately looking for.

How to find what you’re looking for

There are a few ways to start finding sources in social media:

  1. Google.  It’s the old standby, but no worse for that.  When I first started following educational blogs, five years ago, the first thing I did was to Google “Best teaching blogs.”  Google is still a good place to start.  For example, the Google search “best history blogs” turns up a number of useful links on the first page alone.  Even more useful are topic-specific searches, such as “history of science blogs,” which leads to this nice list of history of science blogs, or “latin american history blogs,” which links to a list of Latin American history blogs at H-Net. You can also use Google to search for people to follow on Twitter, for example by searching on “best history on twitter.”
  2. “Best of” Lists: This is sort of a variation on the above, since you might find these via a Google search, but a “Best of” list can be a very good place to start.  In history, for example, the Cliopatria Awardsevery year highlight some of the best history blogs out there.  Since these lists are curated, they are likely to be of high quality.  This year I found one of my favorite new history blogs, Renaissance Mathematicus, through the Cliopatria Awards.
  3. Follow blog writers on Twitter.  If you’re looking for people to follow on Twitter, start by following the authors of blogs you like.  It’s easy to do, since nearly every decent blog includes a simple “follow me” button.  Not only will you hear about their latest posts, they’ll probably also forward links to interesting articles–and by seeing who they follow, you’ll find more people to follow on Twitter yourself.
  4. Friday follows: The #FF (Friday follow) tradition on Twitter is a good way to find new people to follow.  Just see who you’re favorites Twitterers recommend, and have a look at their Twitter feed to see if the Twitterati they recommend are worth following.
  5. Twitter lists: Many people on Twitter have public lists, which you can either follow wholesale, or peruse more selectively.  I, for example, have a list of historians and other history sources on Twitterthat I follow.  If the people you have chosen to follow have list, check them out.  You can find others’ lists by going to their profile page and clicking on “lists” above their list of tweets.
  6. Follow the links.  This is key.  If you see an interesting link in a blog post, or if someone posts an interesting link on Twitter, click on it–maybe it leads to another good blog to follow.

Following these steps will get students set up with lists of blogs and Twitter lists to follow.  But how can they manage the research?  I’ll discuss that in my next post, on time management practices and habits of mind for social media research.


Photo credit: Old research methods vs. new research methods, via Flickr.

David Korfhage

History Teacher at Montclair Kimberley Academy

I am an upper school history teacher at the Montclair Kimberley Academy, in Montclair, New Jersey, where I also teach comparative religion. I am particularly interested in the application of technology to education, in using effective assessment and feedback to improve student learning, and in promoting thoughtful wisdom, insight, and reflection in my students.