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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Kranz


The Open-Ended Research Task

Research the impact of environmental degradation on an animal of your choice.

Explain how Australia’s legal system differs to that of another country.

Select a local Aboriginal clan and describe the impact of conflict on their way of life.

The above are all examples of the types of questions that I have recently seen asked of Year 7 students. Sometimes these questions are presented in the context of a well-crafted, explicitly taught unit of work, the culmination of which is a personal research project. However, more often than not, such questions are posed without context or scaffolding - the research task BECOMES the teaching and learning - and students are left flailing, without the requisite knowledge or skills to fully engage.

The Problems

* When tasks are open-ended and students have little or no background knowledge of the topic/issue at hand, it is impossible for them to make informed choices e.g. select a country with a legal system that is easy to contrast with Australia’s or an animal that has been significantly impacted by environmental degradation. In the absence of recommendations, students often end up choosing a topic that is frustrating at best and unworkable at worst.

* Sourcing reliable, up-to-date, easy-to-understand information about a very specific topic armed only with Google can be challenging for the most experienced of researchers. Asking students to do this is simply setting them up to fail.

* Add to this the challenges faced by many students of simply accessing text – either due to word-level decoding difficulties or language-based comprehension difficulties – and research tasks can seem like an impossibility. Skim-reading online resources to ascertain their relevance is a complex skill that requires high-level literacy skills. Given that the majority of these resources are not written for students but instead professionals or enthusiasts in the chosen field, this is a big ask, even for those with at-level reading skills.

* Finally, extracting information from a range of resources (i.e. synthesising information) is a sophisticated skill that needs to be explicitly taught. If we don’t want students to simply cut and paste slabs of text, then we need to equip them with the skills to identify, summarise and organise key ideas and relevant information.

Mia culpa - as a conscientious and well-meaning Humanities teacher, I assigned my fair share of vague, poorly scaffolded, open-ended research tasks. I am sure that, at the time, I had a niggling feeling that they were not accessible to all students, but either didn’t have the time, expertise or agency to do things differently. Had I understood the blood, sweat and tears that were inevitably shed by some students to get these tasks done, I would have been mortified. It is therefore important to remember that teachers' use of such tasks is not always a reflection of their skills as an educator or their desire to better support struggling students - but rather a product of a range of factors, many out of their control. It is with this understanding that I offer the following suggestions...

The Solutions

* Firstly, and most importantly, don’t ask students to investigate a topic that has not already been discussed in class beforehand. Prior to commencing a research task, unpack key vocabulary, provide theoretical content, look at case studies, model the research process - scaffold, scaffold, scaffold! A research task should never be a student’s introduction to a topic.

* Provide students with relevant, interesting options that you have already ascertained it is easy to find information on. This gives them some choice, without the frustration of research dead-ends.

* Curate resource lists for each option - perhaps 4-5 age-appropriate resources that will provide students with all the information they will need to answer the question/s at hand. If they feel confident exploring resources beyond this list, then fantastic, but if not, they will still be able to learn what they need to learn in order to complete the task. Provide a range of text types (e.g. videos, podcasts, infographics) and don’t be afraid to go ‘old school’ and add books to your list!

* Allow students to use text-to-speech tools like Immersive Reader when undertaking online research - this will help them to work around any decoding difficulties that may prevent them from accessing the text.

* Provide students with both graphic organisers to help scaffold the note-taking process (e.g. Venn diagrams for compare/contrast questions, flow charts to summarise cause & effect) and a step-by-step guide to answering research questions (e.g. read/listen to/watch text, highlight/jot down key points, fill in graphic organiser…).

* The ability to find and evaluate information is crucial…but – at least initially – information literacy skills need to be taught and assessed separately. See this fantastic article for lots of tips and tricks:

As most parents know, given the wrong task at the wrong time, homework can quickly become a battleground – a source of anguish, stress and conflict that engulfs the whole family. The aim of this article is to provide both teachers and parents with an understanding of not only why certain tasks can be challenging (particularly for students with a learning difference) but also how these homework hazards can be avoided.

In summary, provide:

* contextual knowledge

* glossaries

* options

* curated resource lists

* non-print resources

* assistive technology

* graphic organisers

* exemplars/worked examples

* step-by-step guides

* checklists

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