Guest post by Justin Burns, GCC English Faculty

Teaching the research process might be one of the more strenuous, time-intensive things we could do as college instructors. And I’m not just talking about English composition courses–this pertains to any course that has research-based writing as a key component to its curriculum. The struggle is real, gang. The quality of source information, the juggling of disparate voices and ideas, the citation systems, the note-taking, outlining strategies, annotated bibliographies–it’s a wonder that students leave the process sound in body and mind. Us, too, for that matter. It’s a heavy slog at times, but it’s so important for the success of our students moving forward. Being able to create an original thesis and synthesize not just your own ideas but the ideas of others in a clear and articulate fashion is a hallmark of academic thought. If we wanted to take it a step further, we could make an argument that beyond the academic classroom, the ability to synthesize and articulate ideas is crucial in any environment. Such higher-level thinking skills are very much valued in the workforce. Critical evaluation of information doesn’t stop with a college degree.

So we teach the research process to the best of our ability. And we try to keep up with the times. And we try to keep track of new literacies and new strategies. And the next thing we know, MLA 8th edition now requires the full URL address of a web source when constructing a Works Cited entry, when we could have sworn they did away with that years ago. Things change. Information changes. Source material changes. And through the 21st century, we’ve been inundated by a flood of new Internet-based strategies for research and citations and note-taking. It seems each year brings some innovative new app or program that claims to be the solution to our students’ myriad troubles with web-based research. Hey, look, you can annotate directly on websites using Diigo. Or, hey, look, here’s yet another simulator to help you construct bibliographic entries for your essay. There’s always something new.

Which is what makes NoodleTools so fascinating. I have no idea how long NoodleTools has been around. Alisa Cooper gave me a quick intro this last spring, but it was enough for me to want to know more. Because here’s what’s so fascinating about NoodleTools–it’s old school. Like, real old school. Pre-internet, taking notes on 3×5 notecards old school. It’s like a classic automobile surrounded by electric vehicles. Think of Dean Winchester’s Chevy Impala from Supernatural in a sea of Elon Musk’s Tesla Model X’s–that’s what it’s like. Because NoodleTools addresses one of the more difficult concepts students encounter with the research process–seeing how all the different information from various sources actually fits together–by using an old-school, tried-and-true method of note cards.

Weirdly enough, I’ve been searching for something like this for awhile. Even as I started teaching and started learning more about newer methods of note taking and outlining, I still thought about the notecard method I was taught when I took ENG 102 twenty years ago. The method was simple–during the research process, whenever you found information you thought you might use in your draft, you would write it down on a 3×5 notecard. Then, you would paraphrase the information, giving you two different ways you could utilize it in your paper. Lastly, you would cite the information, connecting it to a working bibliography you had, so you knew where the information came from. That was it. So, throughout the research process, you might have something like 75-100 notecards from maybe 15-20 sources, full of research you might or might not actually use in your paper.

NotecardsThe genius of the approach (and I understand this is not revolutionary; this was pretty standard practice for teaching the research process) is that the notecards allowed you the ability to tangibly shift your information around, so that you could see the basic form of your argument take shape. So, let’s say, if you were writing a paper on abolishing the death penalty, and you wanted a subtopic to discuss the racial or class factors involved in such cases, you would sift through your stack of notecards and pull everything that pertained to that idea and put it in a separate pile. That pile might consist of several sources, perhaps agreeing or disagreeing with each other, but allowing you to see how their ideas worked with each other, and just as importantly, with your own ideas. You would create more stacks with more ideas and concepts, and sure enough, a basic form would start to emerge for your paper.

This approach was brutal, to be sure. I can’t say I liked it too much. It was time consuming and tedious. But even back then, I appreciated its value. It was simple yet effective–a perfect tool to help beginning writers see over the course of their process the basic form of their paper emerge. And this is what NoodleTools does to great effect.

A disclaimer: I don’t know if there are other programs out there that do something like this. In the past, I’ve led students to websites that offer free notecards for a similar effect, but not to the extent that NoodleTools offers. It seems NoodleTools offers three distinct services that perfectly align with the research process. First, it allows students to create a list of sources based on either MLA or APA standards. Any of you who use some other weird, esoteric system–good luck, you’re on your own. But the fact that NoodleTools is up to date on both MLA and APA editions shows that its value is far beyond just the English composition classrooms. So, as students research, they can document their sources. In this regard, NoodleTools acts a lot like Easybib or other citation generators. It’s remarkably thorough in what information it wants from students to create the bibliographic entry. You can set the bibliographic criteria on almost a difficulty rating. I imagine it’s like what kind of bibliographic information a first-year composition student would need as opposed to a doctoral student, in terms of specificity. Source information can get real tricky the more involved you get with research. Each setting expects the students to identify more of the specific criteria for that bibliographic source. So, students can keep a working bibliography going. They can even annotate the sources, for those instructors who require an annotated bibliography. The annotations are directly linked to each source the student creates.

Secondly, NoodleTools allows you to make notecards, as mentioned above. The cool thing is that NoodleTools directly connects each note card to the sources they’re coming from. When you create a new note card, you can easily copy and paste web-based information. There is also a paraphrase section for you to rephrase the quoted information, as well as an idea box for you to post anything you think of regarding that source. As far as I can tell, NoodleTools allows you to make as many notecards as you want. The notecards populate randomly onto a “table.” You can create individual “piles” (think: subtopics) and then drag corresponding notecards to their respective piles, so you can see a basic organizational pattern take shape.

NoodleTools then offers an outline function, where students can create a standard Roman numeral outline. This is where I think NoodleTools really shines. When you create the outline, you can easily drag individual notecards to align under any topic or subtopic you want. I think this is of tremendous importance, because before students even start writing their paper, they have a chance to see not only the basic format they want, but also where all their research fits into that outline. Imagine the puzzle pieces clicking into place and the light bulbs turning on–that’s the true beauty of NoodleTools.

Image from Flickr

As I write this, I feel like a sleazy car salesman trying to sell you the warranty package. I apologize for that. But I can’t tell you how intrigued I am by this. NoodleTools takes the old and intuitively reinvents it for the 21st century. Sometimes, you just can’t beat the classics. We can talk about 21st century technological literacies and web-based learning and all of that, but sometimes, when you get down to something like the research process, it’s all a matter of seeing how information fits together and understanding how it relates to your own ideas. Perhaps the simplicity of NoodleTools’ design is exactly what we need–an easy way to create source citations, notecard information, and outlines showing students exactly where their research is placed in the context of their paper. Its focus on MLA and APA standards certainly shows again that this tool is applicable in just about every class that participates in the research process. It doesn’t solve every issue–for example, it doesn’t address critical evaluation of information or our students’ annoying habit of distilling an entire source to one small tidbit of information that supports one idea in their paper–but for what it is designed for, I think it’s perfect for our students.

Learn more about how to use NoodleTools for free at GCC.

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