Digital Revolution Pre-Draft: Developing a Research Topic, Research Methods, and MLA Formats

Lesson Plan on Developing a Research Topic, Research Methods, and MLA Formats


Primary lesson objective: The final project is asking students to do more extensive research

than they have done on previous projects. By developing an extensive works cited list –

collaboratively and as a class – students will see how a list of potentially workable sources can

grow quickly. This exercise requires that students have access to individual computers and that

the instructor is able to display on screen a shared Google Docs file.


Platforms used: Internet – various websites; Google Docs; CUNY + (books, media, databases);

MLA generator, such as EasyBib).


Total estimated time: Entire class. This could easily be a 2-class exercise done in the latter part

of the semester. It does not need to be done in consecutive classes. In addition, the library session

on research methods should happen prior to this exercise.  There are multiple parts to complete

with a slow set-up, so more than one class may be necessary. Time spent on individual parts can

be shorter or longer, depending on needs of students, interest of instructor, and time of exercise

in the semester relative to work previously done.


Additional outcomes: Students need to learn how to move beyond Google and Wikipedia.

Students will learn from each other how to more quickly brainstorm on topics and find a general

topic idea, move beyond that to more specific framing of a topic through writing complex, open,

debatable questions, and then develop a topic idea further with key words and search terms. This

is a back and forth process that takes time but the beginning of this exercise attempts to

demonstrate this fairly quickly.


Then students will extend on previous research skills or practice with CUNY+ by working

individually, with the students next to them, and as a total class. Students should also begin using

or finding things through one of several databases. The class will be able to see a collaboratively

generated works cited list grow and develop in real time. In addition, students will – through the

use of generators – construct this list in proper MLA formats. (While also understanding that

MLA generators are not necessarily correct and need proof correction.)


Assignment sequence underway: Students will have begun thinking about the final project.

Work on previous projects will have prepared students: experience with CUNY + (set-up; how to

find a book); discussed limitations of Wikipedia; and seen and discussed kinds of sources used in

academic articles, as well as popular and scholarly publications. The library visit should happen

previously. Prior to this exercise, the class will have discussed development of a research topic

(with previous examples of student work) and also turned in a tentative topic idea for the final




This exercise is not specific to this project and can work for any class, syllabus, or project (mid-

semester or later probably) that involves work on topic selection, CUNY+, forms of research,

and MLA formats.


Work completed prior to class: There is no specific work that needs to be done prior to this

exercise. Students should have kept up with previous assignments and be familiar with CUNY+

and Google Docs. This in-class exercise – whether it occurs in one class or extends over two

classes – should allow students to use skills previously learned while extending practice with

research in new ways.

Note: The instructor should create a new Google Docs file – kept blank – and have shared the

file with all students in the class prior to this exercise. The instructor should also briefly

demonstrate or show an MLA generator site when MLA formats are discussed prior

to this exercise.


Steps: Prefatory Note – Because this exercise has multiple parts, it may seem complicated to

students. There may be the need to break it down into steps rather than giving all instructions

upfront. Time spent on any one part can vary and some parts can be dropped or modified

depending on instructor’s relative needs or interests for the class. For example, if the class is

working on similar topics or the instructor wants to focus on other steps, the topic can be

determined ahead of time (step 1). The number of required sources can vary too depending on

what the instructor wants from students. This exercise require at least one full class, or possibly

up to two – it would be very difficult to do complete all steps listed below in one class.


Before starting: Students should be on individual computers and be on the Internet for step 1.

Before steps 3-5, students should be logged into the shared Google Doc file, have CUNY+ up,

and have an MLA generator site up. Each entry added by a student should be identified by

initials. Students and instructor can watch the projection of the Google Docs file and see the

works cited list grow in real time. The instructor’s role is to facilitate questions or problems as

they arise. Students should also be helping each other with questions or problems as the arise.


Step 1: Topic choice – Students should first look at various news websites (NYT; NPR; BBC;

CNN; etc.) and try to find 2 general topics (news stories) that interest them. It doesn’t matter if

they know anything about the topic ahead of time or not. They should first – write the headline

or topic down on a piece of paper; second – write one or two questions related to that topic

(specific, but also open); and third – brainstorm and write 5-10 key words or variable search

terms and phrases related to their topics.


Step 2: Students will hand these to the instructor and the instructor will quickly pick 2 or 3 (1 is

also fine) and add them to the class Google Docs file. The instructor should type it as written –

the topic or headline; the questions; and the search terms and put these in bold or a larger font

size. These are the topics that the class will then work on for the remainder of the exercise. If

there are multiple options, students can focus on one topic or switch back and forth as they like.

While the instructor is doing this, students should be logging into the Google Docs file,

CUNY +, and have an MLA generator on another page.


Step 3: Students will then find at least 2 articles online and post them under the appropriate

topic. Students must post their entry in proper MLA format – this means using an MLA

generator site, putting their entry in the appropriate place (as more entries get added), and not

having any duplication of entries. Students know how to Google so this should be fairly easy for



Step 4: Students must then find 2 books on CUNY+ or NYPL that relates to one of the topics.

Again, entries must be done in proper MLA format. Other media may also be listed.


Step 5: Students will then find 2 or 3 scholarly peer-reviewed articles through a database. If the

instructor wants to have students find news articles or historical material through a database

(Lexis-Nexis or Historical NYT, for example) this could also be a requirement. This step may be

more difficult for some students. Ideally, the article should be closely related to the topic, but the

main point of this exercise is to go through the process of finding things and looking at journals,

article titles, and short abstracts. Again, these should be added in proper MLA formats.


Steps 6 and 7 are optional or can be modified as the instructor likes.


Step 6: At the end, class discussion can focus on how this collaboratively made works cited list

looks, what sources are more or less relevant (through class discussion with or without individual

assessment). Students can write briefly about their experience working on this. Students might

also each be asked to say or describe how they found the things they did, or if some entries are

especially impressive, those students might be called on to say how they found a particular entry.


Step 7: Students can then – as homework – print out and correct a minimum number of entries

(10, say) on the works cited list. Most or all students use generator sites once they know that they

can (or even things like Zotero), but they should know that these sites are not necessarily perfect

or correct and that they should know what the information in various works cited entries actually


Download: Pre-Draft Assignment/Activity – Developing a Research Topic, Research Methods, MLA Formats

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