5c. I-Search

Ahram Choi, Stuti Garg, and Margaret Kilroy
The University of Georgia

Review of I-Search


Ms. Johnson has decided to include I-Search papers in a unit on ecosystems. She has worked with the school media specialist to determine what materials are available for this study within the school setting, the local community, and on the Internet. She introduces the concept of the I-Search to her students and has them select a topic they would like to explore. They may choose any topic related to ecosystems. Joey is a student in Ms. Johnson’s class. To help Joey and his classmates get started, Ms. Johnson has the students begin their learning logs with an interest web showing what they know about ecosystems. Joey’s web is shown below. While the students work on their webs, the teacher proposes that they consider their last trip to the mountains or the beach. After making their webs using Inspiration, the students share their ideas and choose a topic from their web. After getting feedback from his teacher and peers and reflecting on his choices, Joey decides to do his I-Search on blue crabs because he has so much fun catching them and he thinks they taste good.

Figure 1. Joey’s Interest Web

Ms. Johnson helps Joey and his classmates develop possible research questions using the accordion exercise in which each student writes a question about the chosen topic on a separate fold of the paper. When the students get this sheet, they write a question that they would like to answer about the given topic, which is written at the top of the page. Joey is considering doing his search about blue crabs. From this exercise, he can get ideas from his peers for questions he could ask about blue crabs.

Table 1. Joey’s Accordion Exercise (folded paper)
Blue Crabs
How do you catch blue crabs?
What do blue crabs look like?
How do you tell if a blue crab is a male or a female?
Are blue crabs easy to catch?
How do you cook blue crabs?
Are blue crabs dangerous?

In the next class, Ms. Johnson instructs the class to complete a pre-notetaking sheet based on the KWL format. The KWL chart format (see Figure 3) which was created by Ogle (1986), has three columns: K (know), W (want to know), and L (learned). Students put their prior knowledge in the left column. Some of the peer questions received in the accordion activity (see Figure 2) can be placed either in the middle column or in the left column. The right column is the place for research questions. Based on the questions from the accordion exercise and his reflections, Joey fills in the three columns. He chooses ‘Why aren’t there as many blue crabs now as there were when my mother was my age?” as his I-Search question.

Table 2. Joey’s Pre-notetaking Sheet
What I know What I don’t know What I want to know
  • Blue crabs taste good.
  • Blue crabs are blue.
  • You can catch blue crabs with chicken necks and a net.
  • My mom says you used to be able to catch crabs easier when she was young.
  • How do you tell if a blue crab is a male or a female
  • How do you cook blue crabs?
  • How do you cook blue crabs?
  • Why aren’t there as many blue crabs now as there used to be?

Now the students have their own search questions and can begin to find the answers to the questions. Students are familiar with searching for information on the Web, and they frequently go to the school media center to obtain information. The teacher invites Ms. Becker, who is a media specialist, to brief the students about how to find information and the types of media that are available for them to use. Although Joey likes to catch blue crabs, he doesn’t have much knowledge about the blue crab’s place in the ecosystem. Ms. Johnson advises Joey to scan books and magazines about blue crabs to broaden his knowledge. She also gives him questions to think about, such as “What does the reduced number of blue crabs indicate?” and “How is the crab population related to the ecosystem?” Ms. Becker helps him to find the books and magazines. After reading the available references, he generates several more detailed sub-questions about the blue crab. During the class, one of his friends mentions gaining valuable information from an interview and Joey decides to interview a local crabber. Joey uses the double entry draft template (see Figure 4) to record information during an interview with a local crabber. Double entry draft is a tool which students can use while they are gathering information. In the left column, the students keep a record of the information they find then write reflective thoughts related to the information in the right column.

Table 3. Joey’s Double Entry Draft
  1. Crab populations are decreasing.
  2. People are keeping females with eggs and not letting them go.
  3. population
  4. (not applicable)
  5. What to blue crab eggs look like?
  6. Females with eggs have an orange “sponge” attached to the shell.
  7. Fewer people should be allowed to catch crabs.
  8. Many things affect the crab population.
  9. Female crabs with eggs should be let go when they are caught.
  10. I need to know more about how water temperatures affect blue crabs.
  1. If the population gets too small, there won’t be any crabs left.
  2. People are killing the baby crabs before they are born.
  3. all of the blue crabs that live in a place
  4. (not applicable)
  5. Maybe people don’t know the crabs have eggs.
  6. I’ve caught crabs like that. I thought they were sick.
  7. Maybe there should be fewer crabbers but people should be able to catch crabs for dinner.
  8. Crabs are being hurt by higher temperatures.
  9. If crabs with eggs aren’t let go, there won’t be any blue crabs in the future.
  10. I will check with the fisheries experts to find out more.

After compiling all of the information obtained from library resources, the internet, and interviews with experts, Joey writes his I-Search paper describing his journey in search of an answer to his questions (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Joey’s Blue Crab I-Search

As part of the assessment process, students are required to present the information they have discovered through the I-Search process in a format of their choice. Joey chooses to produce an informational flyer that can be placed in locations where people who are going crabbing will see them (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Joey’s Blue Crab Flyer

From Traditional Research to Standards-based I-Search

I-Search is the process of searching for answers to questions which have personal meaning to the writer combined with a metacognitive review of the search process. Instead of restating old information as done in the traditional research paper, I-Search is inquiry-based and the path of discovery is driven by the need to find answers. I-Search embraces the emotional involvement of the writer and imparts the inner conflicts discovered as it becomes necessary to choose between alternative answers to questions along the way. I-Search is the story of the search rather than the summary of answers found in traditional research papers.

Table 4. Traditional Research vs. Forms of I-Search
I-Search Traditional Research Standards-based I-Search
“tell stories of quests that count for the questers written in a way that catches and holds readers” (Macrorie, 1988, Preface, paragraph 26) “an exercise in badly done bibliography, often an introduction to the art of plagiarism, and a triumph of meaninglessness for both writer and reader” (Macrorie, 1988, Preface, paragraph 26) Tells the story of the student’s search for answers to questions within the constraints of the content standards imposed by the curriculum
Driven by the writer’s need to know the answer Driven by the writer’s need to cover a topic Driven by the students desire to learn about the topic
Written in the first person Written in the third person Written in the first person
Portrays the writer’s emotional conflict Objectively dissociates the writer’s personal feelings Portrays the writer’s attempts to analyze differing points of view
Imparts the writer’s “truths” Imparts an objective interpretation of facts Imparts the writer’s learning process
A story of the journey to find an answer A report of the results of the search A story of a journey to metacognition
Inquiry-based Summary of “old” information Inquiry-based

The I-Search was introduced by Macrorie (1988) as an alternative approach to the traditional research paper in his undergraduate English classes. He proposed the idea to resolve the problems encountered while teaching students who are not engaged in the writing process. He defines I-Search as the writer’s “search to find out something he needs to know for his own life and write the story of his adventure” (1988, Preface, paragraph 9).

Tallman and Joyce expanded the original idea of I-Search by offering teachers and media-specialists applications and strategies for using the I-Search to teach writing and researching skills. They define the I-Search as an approach that uses students’ interests to build a personal understanding of the research process and to encourage stronger student writing (Tallman & Joyce, 2006). They suggest that the I-Search method involves scaffolding (see scaffolding) strategies and activities adaptable to the class.

Duncan and Lockhart (2005) brought the I-Search into the classroom as a tool for use in standards-based instruction in all classes. Through the I-Search unit, teachers can provide an opportunity for students to “develop questions, research the answers, record their findings, and illustrate their learning through products while reflecting on and evaluating their learning” (Duncan & Lockhart, 2005, p. 3) In the I-Search unit, students still choose a topic of interest to them. The research is still driven by a desire to answer a question that is of importance to the student; however, the choice is made within the context of the content standards.

I-Search and Standards-based Instruction: Features

Student as a collaborative partner, teacher as a facilitator

In the I-Search process, the relationship between students and teachers is different from their relationship in a traditional research process. In the I-Search process, students have ownership of their research as they investigate what they find meaningful. For example, Joey found blue crabs interesting so he chose them to research. In the traditional research process, topics are often assigned to the students, causing them to feel less empowered. Students encounter successes and frustrations while they are developing and adapting strategies in the I-Search, and they take on the role of collaborative partner as they share their own experiences with their peers and teachers.

Teachers and media specialists play a crucial role as facilitators in the I-Search process.

Tallman and Joyce (2006) characterize facilitation as a means of helping students discover how different research strategies can work for them. Because most students are not familiar with creating higher-order questions, teachers provide scaffolding through conferencing with students to help them develop reflective thinking skills.

Also, teachers and media specialists work collaboratively throughout the process. Determining ‘how to interact with the information’ is vital for a successful I-Search experience. Teachers and media specialists provide information about where to gather meaningful resources and how to relate that information to students’ own lives through scaffolding.

In the scenario, the class works collaboratively to find the right topic within the content area. Through the accordion exercise (see Figure 2), the students obtain diverse perspectives on their topics from their peers. This broadens their list of choices within the search topic and makes the students aware of questions they had not considered. Ms. Johnson and Ms. Becker support Joey and his classmates by letting them know how to find and use information. Moreover, the teacher acts as a facilitator in helping Joey find out about how his crabbing activities influence the ecosystem by providing cue questions.

Writing as a tool to build up critical thinking skills

Through the I-Search process, students eventually develop their critical thinking skills. In each phase of the I-Search process, students reflect on their I-Search experience. They articulate and reflect on what they have learned, what they want to learn, and how they will learn. During the pre-search and search phases, students also learn how to create a plan, evaluate the information they gather, and integrate the information into their own experience. These activities correspond to the three higher-level thinking skills of analyzing, evaluating and creating described in the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy.

As stated in the scenario, Joey wants to find out more about blue crabs because he enjoys catching them. As he gains more information from references and gets advice from Ms. Johnson, he learns how to relate his topic to his life. Finally, he discovers how his catching blue crabs can affect the ecosystem.

Learning logs function as tools promoting students’ critical and reflective thinking skills

(see Articulation and Reflection) Students begin to write a learning log as the I-Search process starts (see Table 3). They keep a record in their learning logs of their reflective thoughts on both the I-Search process and the product they develop through the process. I-Search is an outcome of the students’ findings throughout the process and it requires articulation; the students make their knowledge explicit through articulation. The accumulated narratives recorded in the learning log become a critical part of the final product.

The first entry added to the learning log is the personal universe web (see Figure 1). After generating their personal universe web, students pick two or three topics that they find most interesting. Students decide on their I-Search topic by reflecting on the chosen topics from the web. The writing prompt is an effective tool to help in the process of choosing a topic. Teachers provide writing prompts with which students start their reflective sentences. Sample writing prompts include:

  • This topic is attractive because:
  • The web helped me select the topic in that:
Table 5. Learning Log Entries
Process Product Reflection
Choose a topic Personal universe web Reflection on the web
Topic web around the chosen topic
Find information Bibliographic citation What was learned in general about the topic
Pre-note taking sheet (KWL chart)
Use information The plan of action Double-entry draft Reflection on the prioritized information
Evaluation of the information
Develop a final product Final product Lessons learned

Increasing students’ motivation

I-Search closely follows the 6 C’s of motivation which are strategies for increasing motivation and allowing students to have a choice in their search.

  • Choice: A basic principle for increasing motivation is to let people do what they want to do. Within the I-Search process, everything is determined by personal choice. Beginning with the choice of the search topic, the students select what they want to explore and what they find meaningful. In the Scenario, Joey chooses blue crabs for the topic of his I-Search. He wants to learn more about blue crabs because he enjoys catching and eating them. He chooses the methods for his research (interviews, internet, etc.) as well as the format of the final product (see Figure 9).
  • Challenge: After choosing a search topic, students describe “what they know” and “what they need to know.” They become aware of any gaps in their knowledge in the chosen topic as they complete the pre-notetaking sheet (see Figure 3). Students then express “what they want to know,” which becomes their search question. Thus, they discover new information that challenges their current level of understanding. Ms. Johnson’s questions provide a challenge to Joey in that he had not considered the effects catching blue crabs might have on the ecosystem.
  • Control: In the I-Search process, students have control over their own search process. Joey is fully empowered in his I-Search. He picks the topic, builds his own search plan, and arranges the interview to gather information that he finds more relevant. If students have difficulty exercising so much control over the I-Search process, teachers can help them manage the search process.
  • Collaboration: Although the I-Search originated as an assignment for a writing class, it has elements of collaboration when implemented in the classroom. Students share their knowledge and useful resources and provide comments on the search process as Joey does in the accordion exercise (see Figure 2). Joey arranged to interview a local crabber after his classmate introduced this strategy for obtaining information.
  • Constructing meaning: The students continuously reflect on the learning process. Joey deliberates about how the topic is related to his life and how his choices affect the topic of his search. During the search process, students write about what they have learned and why the information is meaningful to them; therefore, the search result has meaning beyond that of a compilation of superficial knowledge. Since the students choose what has relevance to their lives, they stay motivated. Joey even creates a blue crab flyer to raise people’s awareness of the blue crab population crisis because he discovers a personal value, to maintain the ecosystem, in his I-Search.
  • Consequences: The result of I-Search can take any format the learner chooses. Learners are motivated when they feel they are recognized. In the scenario, all of the students have opportunities to present their I-Search products.

I-Search Process

Although sub-steps for the I-Search may vary depending on the topic, there are four major steps (see Figure 7):

  • Choose a topic / Generate the I-Search question
  • Develop a search plan / Gather information
  • Use information
  • Develop a final product

Figure 4. I-Search process: The Educational Development Center’s Four Instructional Phases (Adapted from http://www2.edc.org/FSC/MIH/4-phases.html)

I-Search does not merely supply an alternative to the research paper. It provides a process for learning throughout the phases of the I-Search. It is an iterative process. Once students have created their research questions, they revise and elaborate on the questions or create different questions as they go through the process. Once they have identified helpful resources for their I-Search, they read them using a scanning technique, connect the reading to their experience, and do a detailed reading based on the questions so they keep interacting with the information throughout the process. There is ongoing assessment through reflection and conferencing so that the students stay focused.

In this chapter, the process is introduced based on the four phases shown above, with the adaptable in-class strategies suggested by Tallman and Joyce (2006) (see Table 6).

Table 6. Outline of the I-Search Process (Tallman & Joyce, 2006)
I. Create personal universe web
A. Choose interest area to explore
B. Create interest topic web
II. Solicit questions and suggestions about interest areas from family and peers
A. Participate in accordion strategy
B. Share results
III. Create pre-notetaking sheet with three columns
A. What I know
B. What I don’t know
C. What I want to know through my research
IV. Read without notetaking from general sources to build background knowledge
A. Do not take notes while reading in general sources
B. Learn to skim and scan
C. Wait until done with a session, then close source, reflect on how information informs topic in learning log
D. Use teacher-created prompts to promote reflection
E. Create bibliographic citations in proper form and keep them with notes in learning log
F. Identify keywords and search terms
V. Create 2nd draft of pre-notetaking sheet
A. Revise questions based on increased knowledge from general source reading
B. Identify specific resources, including Internet websites, people to interview, media center holdings, etc.
VI. Use double-entry drafts for reflective notetaking from resources
A. For each resource, write bibliographic citation on double-entry draft page
B. Take notes from sources in left column on double-entry draft page
C. Reflect on notes in right column on double-entry draft page
D. Use teacher prompts for reflections, if desired
VII. Apply the findings to the research question
VIII. Reflect on value of search strategies in learning log
IX. Organize learning log reflections, double-entry draft entries, and reflections into final product (format can be student’s choice) that includes:
A. Why the topic was chosen
B. Story of the student’s search
C. What the student found
D. How the student answered the question or solved the problem

Step 1. Choose a topic

The starting point of the I-Search process is to choose a topic that interests the students. The result of I-Search might vary depending upon the topic choice. Choosing topics that attract the students’ attention and have relevance to their lives enables the students to stay motivated and engaged in the I-Search process. In standards-based I-Search, the topics should be in curriculum content areas. Background information in the content area should be provided before beginning the I-Search so that students are prepared to engage in brainstorming. Also, teachers should inform the students of the available resources, such as magazines, websites, and knowledgeable others that are relevant to the content so that students can obtain knowledge from diverse perspectives.

Drawing an interest web is a good strategy to help students find personally interesting topics. Teachers model creating an interest web, then have the students draw a personal universe web (see Figure 1). The web can involve anything related to the students and their lives, such as hobbies, families, friends, and school. After generating the webs, each student picks two or three of the topics on his or her web and develops further ideas on the selected topics.

Teachers help the students develop a more detailed web by asking questions. They may start by asking for factual information and gradually move to questions about the students’ standpoint on the factual information. After completing the personal universe web, the class has a debriefing session to share the strategies they used for topic decisions and their topic choices. Teachers, media specialists, and students work collaboratively as they discuss the successes and frustrations encountered in this first step.

Step 2. Find information

In this phase, students narrow the topic and form researchable questions from the topics they selected in Step 1. The key role of teachers in this step is to encourage students to generate higher-order questions. Students need to find a point to investigate within their chosen topic, but they may be unaware of how to start. The accordion exercise (see Figure 2) and pre-notetaking (see Figure 3) are strategies that are beneficial for converting vague ideas into higher-order research questions.

The accordion exercise provides a way to promote divergent thinking and solicit more diverse responses about the topic from peers. Fold a sheet of paper horizontally to make several rows, and write the student’s topic at the top of the paper. Hand the sheet over to the class and have other students write possible questions about the topic. The papers should remain folded so that students write down original ideas without being influenced by others’ opinions. The collected queries offer students a greater variety of ideas and points to consider about their research topics.

Based on the reflections, students begin to fill in the pre-notetaking sheet which adopts the KWL chart format. Then, students start by forming knowledge level questions that begin with “what” or “when” and develop them into higher-order questions beginning with “how” or “why”. The teacher supports students as they convert lower-level questions into higher-level by scaffolding and through conferencing. Action verbs suggested by Bloom (1974) are utilized to make a gradual conversion to higher-order questions. The pre-notetaking sheet guides students as they gather their information.

After completing the sheet, students do some background reading using skimming and scanning without taking notes. The background reading expands the students’ general knowledge in the content area and encourages revision of the questions in the last column. Students should not take notes while they are reading since the focus of this activity is on general rather than detailed information. After completing the background readings, students should close the resources, write bibliographic citations in the learning log, and deliberate over the information gathered from the readings. By taking notes after reading, students are forced to interpret the information in their own words and relate the information to the topic while reflecting on their general reading. Other resources such as websites or magazines may be offered to provide the students with more information about the content and more chances to practice scanning and skimming. Once the students become familiar with the topic, they are able to express the main concept using key words.

At this point, students return to their I-Search question and determine whether it is still applicable. With broadened knowledge in their chosen fields, students may add more questions to the “what I want to know” column by finding key words from the reading and combining them with ”how,” “what,” or “why.” Students select several questions relevant to their I-search focus from the right column on the pre-notetaking sheet. The most enticing question becomes the final question for I-Search.

Step 3. Use the right information

In the traditional research process, the final paper becomes the place where copies and pastes are compiled and the stance of a writer on the research question is often lost. This step is a guideline to help avoid this tradition.

The purpose of this step is to provide perspective on the topic by properly using the information found. To get started, students first prioritize the information listed in their learning logs. They then take a photocopy of the highlighted information while noting reasons for its importance. Students then restate the core ideas in their own words, reorganize the information to respond to their research questions, and find connections between the information and the students’ prior experiences or knowledge by evaluating and synthesizing the information. The aforementioned tasks are recorded in the learning log throughout this phase, and the narratives in the learning log are used in the final product.

During this phase, it is critical that teachers and media specialists instruct students about how to evaluate the available resources. The double-entry draft (see Figure 9) is an effective tool that may be used to assist the students in determining the validity and reliability of the information they discover. The suggested criteria for accomplishing this (Tallman & Joyce, 2006) are:

  • currency,
  • accuracy,
  • point of view,
  • bias, and
  • fact versus opinion.

The teacher and the media specialist provide the class with a variety of resources containing information on their topics. Students evaluate each of the resources using the double-entry draft (see Table 5). Students select several sources of information on each topic and participate in group discussions about the topics based on the above criteria. This activity provides each student with the opportunity to create a personal perspective. Reflection on the information compiled in the double-entry format comprises a vital part of the final product.

Table 7. Double-Entry Draft Template with Probing Comments
Resource (Author, Title, etc.):
Content Response
1. A main idea or key concept 1. Why it is a key point
2. A sentence/passage that produces an emotional reaction 2. An explanation of the reaction and the reason for that reaction
3. An unknown word 3. A possible definition
4. A confusing passage 4. Paraphrase
5. Questions that comes to mind 5. Reasons for wanting to know the answer or a possible answer
6. Information that relates to a personal experience 6. Personal experience
7. A statement of the author’s opinion 7. Reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the author
8. A key point 8. Another author’s view on the same topic
9. Important information 9. How the information helps to answer a research question
10. Other 10. Other

Before producing the final product, students organize the narratives recorded in the learning log in a manner that responds to their research question. Students return to the pre-notetaking sheet and review some of the questions they generated. These questions provide clues to the content of the narratives and may be used as subtitles for the final product.

Step 4. Develop a final product

Although I-Search was originally used in an English composition class, the final result does not have to be a writing piece. The formats of the products are chosen to fit the questions. While developing the final product, it is important to maintain a first person point of view. As students address their experiences or opinions with “I,” they gain ownership in the I-Search process and gain confidence in their product. This final step provides another opportunity for students to develop critical thinking skills through peer editing. Students, as peer editors, build critical thinking skills such as analyzing and evaluating and gain knowledge in the content area during the process of editing. Presentation of the final product may diverge from the original goal of the I-Search. Through participation in debriefing sessions, conferencing, and class discussions, students and teachers become familiar with all of the topics. One example of a product is the flyer (see Figure 6) found in the blue crab example, which shows how to identify a female crab carrying eggs. This flyer could be made available to people who want to go crabbing by posting it in areas such as local marinas and bait shops.


One of the features of I-Search is the ongoing assessment built into the process. It utilizes authentic assessment by having students receive feedback through conferencing, reflections, and peer reviews. Teachers may generate checklists or rubrics to enable students to self-assess while they are engaged in the I-Search process. Also, Bloom’s Taxonomy can be used to evaluate students’ higher-order thinking skills as demonstrated in their learning logs and final presentations.

Benefits of I-Search

Increased motivation

Students’ own choices lead the research within the context of the curriculum content, which helps increase motivation as indicated by the Six C’s of motivation. Students choose a topic and a question to answer that have personal meaning to them, thereby enhancing their desire to complete a thorough search for answers to their questions. This open-ended, student-centered approach provides maximum student control.

Promotion of articulation and reflection and development of metacognition

I-Search reveals the thought processes involved in the search for answers. This allows other members of the learning community to follow the writers’ thought processes as their search leads them along the path of discovery. Throughout the I-Search process, students reflect on the information they encounter and make decisions about how to proceed based upon their reflections. This combination encourages the development of metacognitive skills because the students are required to reflect deeply as they analyze the information they uncover and make decisions about its validity. The reader is then able to share the learning process because of the emphasis on the search in writing the I-Search paper.

Challenges of I-Search

Limited choices in curricular areas

Traditional I-Search allows complete choice on the part of the writer. This very openness, which motivates the writer to delve deeper into the topic of choice, is limited in the standards-based classroom. The challenge is to maintain the openness while staying within the confines of the curriculum content. This can be accomplished by using the I-Search as one tool in the search for knowledge as shown in the blue crab scenario.

Time and resource intensive

Incorporating I-Search into the classroom requires a wide variety of resources if students are to be given maximum freedom in choosing topics. Much more planning time is required of both the teacher and the school media specialist with this student-centered approach in order to compile a comprehensive assortment of resource materials. In rural areas with limited resources, both human and technological, this can be difficult to accomplish.

If you would like some assistance in going through the iSearch process, there is a well designed tutorial to assist you. You can access that tutorial by clicking here.


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APA Citation: Choi, A., Garg, S., & Kilroy, M. (2006). I-Search. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from  http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/