Science Fair: Leading students in a literature search

Last fall I had the tremendous opportunity to participate in a conference for teachers who mentor students who do independent research. The weekend was sponsored by the Society for Science and the Public, and took place in Washington DC. (I strongly encourage you to apply for it if you see the opportunity. Everything about it was amazing.)

14462917_10153738065227096_7304378460240637443_nDuring the application process for the conference, the participants were asked if they’d be willing to lead a session, and provided with a list of topics to choose from.

I remember as I selected “How to lead students in a literature search”, I just had a feeling I’d be picked for it.

Writing a paper is a serious thing for a scientist. I’ve co-authored a few papers, book chapters, and plenty of abstracts. Its the only enduring part of my research that I will leave behind. Sure, the fossils and specimens and some chemicals even are locked away in a little museum in Ohio – but its the writing about my work that will (hopefully) continue to sit in the scientific record and speak about what I’ve contributed. I tell my students constantly: “It doesn’t really count until you’ve written it down.”

So, the literature search is fundamentally important in independent research. The literature search is the first place where students see what others have done.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” -Sir Isaac Newton

Through the organizers of the event, I was introduced to Dr. Patrycja Krakowiak. She also mentors students through the process of developing independent research projects.  We agree on many issues surrounding independent student research, as well as the concerns that teachers have in working with these types of assignments. Without careful planning and support, students can feel overwhelmed and a little lost when it comes to developing an idea, finding primary literature, understanding what it means and turning it into an original research paper.

We presented a session together on the following steps to guiding students through a literature search:


  • Find a few ideas of things you are interested in.
  • Do a little background research to determine which is
    • Most interesting
    • Possible
    • A new idea or approach to an old problem

Evaluate Feasibility of Research

Is this something that you have the equipment to complete, or a way to get what you need in a reasonable timeframe?

Search for References – free primary source documents

There are many sources where students can go to get references, frequently for free.  Become acquainted with them so you can help students use the one that best fits their needs. This is a great skill for students to take to college!

Try the following:

  • Google Scholar
  • PubMed
  • World Cat
  • Interlibrary loan (try your local university)

Prepare an Outline – organize the main ideas.

  • Take notes in the margins and highlight as you read.
  • Make major themes headings and subheadings of our outline.

Fill in Transitions – finish the paper by pulling it together.

  • Connect the ideas you identified when you read.

More details:

Dr. Krakowiak and I have both had success in helping students complete a successful literature search as part of their independent research projects. Its important to remember that many of the small steps along the way both are new for students, and take time. Mentoring students through this process helps them master skills that will pay off for them in college and well into their professional careers.

If you are looking for ideas for how to lead students in a literature search, I’ve included our presentation below (and here). Please feel free to use the comments section for questions!

There is more info on how to use free search engines, choosing a literature style (CSE, APA, MLA, Chicago), general tips and a sample handout in the Google Docs folder at: srt_dc_2016-ceo-ver-1

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