The Librarian Lists: 5 Visual Tools for Student Learning

The Library Lists

I had never been a list maker.  However, my tune changed when I started my first job as a library media specialist.  I realized just how much multitasking was involved and began making lists as an organizational strategy.  Each month, in this online space, I will create a list as a way to organize my thoughts as I share my experiences as a middle school library media specialist. 

5 Tools for Students to Show What They Know During the Research Process:

Research is difficult.  Especially for middle school students, who, regardless of different learning styles, itch to only use Wikipedia for any and all research projects.  When it comes to sharing what they’ve learned through their research, students do not always demonstrate their depth of understanding simply through notes or a paper.  Here are some ideas that I have used with my students to support them during their research journeys.

1. Video Confessionals:

My own confession:  I watch a fair amount of reality television.  However, this vice has come in handy as I teach students about research.  A lot of reality participants utilize a video confessional where they look into the camera and share their thoughts. This idea was the catalyst for student research video confessionals.  One of the first steps in research for our students is to read an overview on their topic.  Generally students rush through this step and do not look for big ideas or key terms.  In order to slow them down, collaborating teachers have begun to require video confessionals. Students turn their device around, record an explanation of the general ideas of their topic, and submit it to the teacher. They have to do it without notes, which means that they have to read their overview more than once in order to be able to speak about it.  In just a minute or two teachers can check for understanding and make sure they are on track.  When I have time, I try and make a coordinating backdrop for the confessional “booth”.


2. Storyboard That:

The site Storyboard That,, is one of my favorite resources to share with students and teachers for any sort of digital storytelling project that includes research.  It is simple to use with a lot of flexibility and almost no learning curve, which makes it perfect when time is an issue.  Students can conceptualize issues using a small number of frames while also exercising creativity.  This tool is also excellent for comparisons or connections between two different things. Last school year, an English teacher used Storyboard That to have students compare an issue in Jim Crow Era historical fiction novels with an actual event.  A social studies teacher assigned students to explain concepts connected to the Civil War using the resource.  A science teacher had her students make storyboards to explain a science lab and its outcome to others.  Every time I have introduced Storyboard That to students, they have been extremely excited to use the resource and stayed engaged in their topic.  When I have introduced this resource to teachers, they have been especially excited about the pre-made storyboards for literature and historical events.  They also appreciate the opportunity to have students research and prepare a different product than a typical research paper.

Example of Storyboard That

3. Research Scavenger Hunts:

Before students embark on a major research project, they usually need at least some instruction on resources and how to digest the information.  I’ve found that a more productive way to check for understanding is to create a scavenger hunt of resources before the students begin their actual research.  In order to check student research skills, I create an assessment in our learning management system.  The questions make the students interact with a variety of resources:  print materials, online databases, and websites.  The questions not only ask students to find the answer to obscure questions, but they also make the students explain why they chose the resources and how they got to the answers.  Our learning management system grades most questions, so it is a very quick and easy check to see if students are on the right track.  Because students see this as more of a game rather than instruction on research strategies, they are invested and engaged.  They also exhibit higher quality research during the actual research projects.

Examples of questions from a Civil War Research Scavenger Hunt

Examples of questions from a Civil War Research Scavenger Hunt:

4. Infographics:

Infographics combine design, images, and information into one interesting visual package. Students often gravitate towards infographics when reading informational texts and enjoy seeing information displayed as a visual feature.  When creating their own, students must truly understand the concepts and ideas of their research in order to put them in an alternate format.  Infographics require students to stretch themselves in different ways as they determine how to convey information visually.  There are many programs that help students make infographics.  My favorites are,,

5. Visual Note-Taking:

Visual note-taking is a recent interest and practice of mine. Incorporating visual note-taking into the research process allows students the opportunity to convey information in a different manner.  It requires them to create meaning using images and text, while also picking out the most important information.  Visual note-taking gives many students an alternative to verbal or written expression.  Taking visual notes can also help students retain the knowledge they uncover in their research.  Teachers can model visual notes in their own instruction and should remind students that getting down the concepts is more important than having a perfect drawing or image.  I have taken visual notes with a notebook and pen.  I have also been quite impressed with the Paper app.

Example of visual notes using Paper

Katherine Nelson is the Resource Center Director at Carleton Washburne Middle School in Winnetka, Illinois, and has been in her school district for nine years.  She is passionate about creating engaging research opportunities, collaboration, and maintaining a vibrant learning community for students.  Follow her on Twitter @lookitup1514.

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