If you are a teacher, I need your guidance. I’m confused about how to best help your students when they reach out to me. 

Quite regularly, I receive email inquiries from high school students who are in the midst of doing research papers. I suppose they find me by Googling their research topic or looking through the list of experts at Psychology Today. When they find authors who have written about their topics, they email a bunch of us and hope someone will take the time out of our extremely busy schedules to respond to a series of questions. Presumably, these expert answers will be summarized in your student’s final papers. 

I love helping young people. But quite honestly, I have a big issue with the growing trend of asking experts to think for students. What happened to the day when students picked and honed research questions, read articles that experts had written, then wrote a paper that critically reviewed those articles? 

Instead, it feels like students want me to think for them. Here is an email I received just a few days ago, printed here with no name or school attached. (Admittedly, though, I couldn’t resist correcting the most glaring grammatical errors before publishing.)  

Recent Email from a High School Student 

Hello Mrs. Price-Mitchell, 

I'm conducting an interview for my English class for a research project. My question that I will be discussing is this: How is technology affecting how children learn and how they are being raised? 

I have 10 questions I would like for you to answer for me to help me in my quest for success in my research project. 

  1. How have you noticed a difference in how the school systems have adapted to the growing use of technology?
  2. Has parenting become an easier task for parents nowadays thanks to technology?
  3. Are teenagers on the path to become better scholars due to the ease of information acquisition?
  4. Is Social Media playing a key role in how technology is affecting how teenagers act socially?
  5. What is the best thing a parent can do to incorporate technology into their child’s life, but to not let it overwhelm the child’s development?
  6. How are parents letting their child’s development be corrupted due to the improper use of technology?
  7. Should schools adapt to the new demand for technology use for education, or should they stick with the old fashioned ways of education? And why?
  8. Is violence in video games or television affecting how kids view violence in the real world?
  9. What can schools do to make the education process for younger generations to be able to incorporate their knowledge with technology, to be applicable to how they learn in school?
  10. How do you see technology as a benefit to the up and coming generations of tomorrow’s future? 

Please get back to me as soon as you can with your responses, I am awaiting your reply. Thank you. 

My Reactions 

I had a flurry of feelings, thoughts, and reactions as I read through this young person’s email, including the following: 

  1. I started reading it as a scholar who regularly considers research questions. “The initial research question was too broad,” I thought to myself. “One could write a book on how technology affected children’s learning and another one on how they were raised.”
  2. The first question was followed by 10 more questions, all of which could be their own research topics. But the student saw them as “interview questions” that would lead to answering the main research question. I saw them as a series of hurriedly concocted questions that would lead to a disorganized and disjointed research paper.
  3. This young person wanted me to spend how much of my time answering these questions? Seriously? I wondered what part of the student’s paper I would be writing for them.
  4. Of course, the student would like me to do this quickly. I imagined they were approaching their deadline and had waited until the last minute to get required expert opinions!
  5. By the time I finished reading, I was feeling angry and bothered. I hate getting these requests out of nowhere with the expectation that I will drop what I am doing to help.
  6. Immediately, I forwarded the message to my assistant who tries to answer these kinds of emails respectfully with “I’m sorry, but Dr. Price-Mitchell is unable to respond to your request due to her busy schedule….”
  7. And then, I thought, “No. Not this time.” I emailed my assistant again and said, “On second thought, this English project is so ill-conceived, it doesn’t deserve a reply!” My assistant responded with, “LOL. Good call. I thought it was a bit rude.”
  8. A few hours later, I decided the best way I could help this student and many others who might follow was to delve into what I consider a much deeper question of how students are learning to think critically for themselves in the Digital Age. 

Educator Advice Sought 

I’m a developmental psychologist, not a teacher. But I’d like to understand an assignment like this from a teacher’s perspective. Am I wrong to think this type of process does not encourage critical thinking? What does a student learn from it? Clearly, there must be value that I am missing. 

Why would a student ask me or another expert to answer questions for them when they could find better, more thought-provoking answers by reading what I’ve published on their topic of interest? I can only surmise that it takes much more time to explore those articles. What about the hours, weeks, months, and years it takes to be a good researcher and then write about the topics you’ve researched? Doesn’t anyone want to read and digest those articles anymore? 

Teachers, please help me understand. How can I best help your students when they reach out to me with an assignment like this? I’m perplexed. 

Author

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher working at the intersection of youth development, leadershipeducation, and civic engagement. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.    

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©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint. 

Image Credit:Galina Barskaya

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