K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education


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compass pointing north

Pathfinders have been used by librarians since the 1970s to help people locate materials about a specific topic. These guides originally listed print resources, from books and articles to primary source collections and subject-specific bibliographies, but now also include web-based resources.

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Navigating the information highway. Determining your direction. Following leads. Using breadcrumbs to go back. Consulting the site map to find our where to go next. Getting lost.

It has always been a challenge to know where to find information. Now that there are electronic databases, digital collections, and the World Wide Web, the task is exponentially more difficult. Indeed, we are lost in a vast wilderness of information — making the geographic references are quite fitting!

Providing a map

Like a driver at the crossroads or a hiker at the fork in the trail, we must constantly make decisions about where we should go to look for information. Ideally, each teacher and student is an accomplished information orienteer, adept at using the features of information sources as a map and compass to find their way through unfamiliar territory. In reality, many are still learning these skills. As we scaffold our students through the research assignment, modeling the evaluation skills we hope will become second nature over time, we make pathfinders — maps through the wilderness of resources designed to ensure students take advantage of the best resources and complete their research successfully.

Finding and using pathfinders on the web

Chances are the topics your students are studying is being studied by other students too. Even if the grade or topic doesn’t match perfectly, the sites listed may serve as a great starting point for students working on an assignment. Before reinventing the wheel, use these sites to find pathfinders on the web.

Internet Public Library Pathfinders
This collection includes annotated, thorough coverage of a wide range of topics. Many of these pathfinders include an introductory paragraph setting the context for the topic, categorization of recommended sources, keyword suggestions, and print information sources. Resources appropriate for secondary students or teachers planning a lesson.
Annette Lamb’s wonderful collection of thematic resources. Each pathfinder includes definitions, activities, four good starting points, and more resources for the topic. Resources appropriate for teachers planning a lesson.
Kids Info Guides
Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library site provides an easy-to-browse collection of simple pathfinders featuring a small number of web links, some print titles (linked to the library’s catalog) and suggested search terms.
Resources appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students.
Lakewood Public Library (Ohio) Class Assignment Pathfinders
A great example of a library/school partnership for helping students locate the best information available for assignments. Pathfinders for elementary, middle and high school.

Student-generated pathfinders

While in some circumstances, it may be desirable to supply students with an existing pathfinder, ultimately, students must be able to make their own informed decisions as they locate and use information. Teach them to fish! Teach students the skills necessary to create their own pathfinders.

Information and communication skills identified in Learning for the 21st Century, published by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, include “analyzing, accessing, managing, integrating, evaluating and creating information in a variety of forms and media.” These skills are integral to developing a pathfinder. Depending upon the instructional goals of the pathfinder assignment, you may assign a simple list of resource citations or require a variety of media formats and annotations. The pathfinder may be the final product or just a step in the research process, either way the students are locating, evaluating, and managing the information to meet a specific need.

Creating a pathfinder for a topic can be the first step in creating an information commons climate in your school or classroom. Like other collaborative information efforts students use online, a pathfinder collection will model the process of building information, a process that is increasingly dynamic. The idea that student work may contribute to a resource base to be utilized by many classes over the years helps to create a non-competitive atmosphere where information is shared and everyone comes out a winner. Collecting student-created pathfinders is a good way to launch a knowledge commons at your school’s website. Besides, encouraging students to create a product worthy of sharing in a print or web-based format will improve the end product because the students are writing for an authentic audience — their peers.

Managing the research process

[Pullout:Providing a pathfinder is like handing students a platter of fish. They are “fed” for today, but what about tomorrow?] Students often wait to the last minute, especially when the research assignment is extensive. Naturally there are many disadvantages that come with leaving assignments to the last minute but one of biggest problems is students (and teachers!) may assume the sources necessary to their project exist or are readily available online. Students expect to easily locate newspapers from Chicago during Prohibition or financial reports from privately held companies but these are difficult to locate. Contrary to popular belief, not everything has been digitized! For more information about this see David Walbert’s article, “From Documents to Digitization.” Newspapers, corporate reports, chemical elements of commercial products, and local documents are among the many sources students will have difficulty locating. The reasons for this vary, but the fact remains that it takes time to locate materials through inter-library loan or to get information from a company.

Assigning a pathfinder as a part of a long-term research assignment may help because it will require students to locate the available sources early. If materials are only available at other libraries or in microforms, the students can plan their project timeline accordingly. An additional benefit of getting sources early is students have time to adjust their theses if the sources don’t support their stance. The development of a pathfinder can help students to work within an established timeline and effectively manage the research process.

Critical thinking and problem solving

A pathfinder is not a comprehensive list of resources on a topic. Selecting a subset of sources is actually more difficult than including everything the student happens upon. It is important for the student to continually consider the focus and review the assignment to determine their information needs.

Creating the pathfinder also encourages students to think critically about information resources. To encourage students to carefully consider the selection process, consider asking students to turn in a list of resources not included in the pathfinder. Asking students to explain the choices, including an explanation of the resources not selected, encourages deeper reflection about the student’s information need and what sources are most suitable to meet that need. A separate document with a list of resources rejected from the final pathfinder, with a sentence or two about why the resource was not selected, will encourage the students to think more deeply about the selection process as it relates to their information needs.

Scanning and skimming

[Pullout:Using text features and context clues are skills as applicable to new information sources as they are to conventional texts.] When students think critically and solve problems, they employ many of the same skills used by good readers. Scanning and skimming available information to discover the key elements and critical vocabulary, focusing on the topic and checking to stay on track, using context clues and text features like tables of contents or guide words. These are some of the strategies teachers teach students to employ when they tackle a difficult text. Since students are increasingly encountering information in a variety of formats and in increasing volume, these skills and more are necessary to basic information literacy.

Scanning and skimming help students to consider the vast information available and select just a subset to use in the assignment. Since the volume of information online is so much greater than the text of a book (or even a few books), scanning the text itself is not possible. Students must learn to use search tools to effectively filter the information sources and locate what they need. General search engines return more than a list of web links; they also capture a few lines of text from the page. Skimming this caption from the sites and scanning the text to see how the search terms are used contextually is one way to use the results returned by a search engine like Google to scan for relevant information. Other search tools, like Ask.com have built-in functionality to help the user broaden, narrow, or refine their search. Given the amount of information students must process, understanding and using these tools is vital.

How does focus have to change when you read on the computer instead of reading a print text? Students trying to maintain a mental connection to the original problem or topic as they read are more challenged than ever in the multi-tasking, always-connected, hyperlinked information world of the internet. Working in an environment where straying from the topic is just a click away requires focus and self-discipline. It is not appropriate to discourage following links; learning when to click on a hyperlink to follow a logical, topical path is essential.

Using text features and context clues are skills is as applicable to new information sources as they are to conventional texts. The skills are the same but students need to learn the new formats the internet and electronic information sources afford. Headings and subheadings are still key elements, but the index is now the site map and the menu bar is essentially the website equivalent of the table of contents. It is critical that teachers point out the features of information sources, electronic or otherwise, so students know how to best navigate the material.

Finally, students may not automatically transfer the skills used in reading print material to the online environment. Teachers must remind and encourage the use of basic comprehension techniques like using context clues so students are reminded that this, too, is reading.

Questioning and predicting

Inquiry must be used if students are to learn questioning. If you give students the question, they are doing nothing more than conducting an elaborate scavenger hunt. Information gathered in this way will not be retained in long-term memory or cognitively connected to other topics. Information skills must be used in the context of a real-life information need, a need the students themselves have identified when they formulate their own question.

Questioning doesn’t come easily. Let me rephrase. After a few years in school, questioning doesn’t come easily.

Young children question everything. Parents are often amazed at their child’s constant, even relentless, questioning. As long parents and teachers maintain an environment respectful of the child’s curiosity, the questions keep on coming. Patient listening and answering help children to follow their interests and natural inclinations and to contextualize new information.

Children who don’t have access to a patient adult who will provide comprehensible information related to their questions soon tire of asking. In order to construct meaning, information children encounter must be relevant to them. What can be more relevant than the questions that arise naturally when a child experiences something new? Questions that go unanswered are learning opportunities lost and, in time, curiosity dwindles.

In order to rekindle the spirit of inquiry in your classroom, try to model questioning strategies when you teach. Ponder connections. Make predictions. Hypothesize. It is essential that students see that questioning is a process and there are specific ways of approaching a text or a problem that contribute to understanding. As with reading, many teachers are so adept and have been successfully questioning and learning for so long that they cannot easily articulate the process to their students. Try asking yourself questions out loud as you read, view a video, or browse a website. This verbal modeling demonstrates the thought process and shows students how you discover the connections between what you know and what you want to know. Students can, in turn, emulate this behavior and begin questioning again themselves. These basic think-aloud techniques are a great strategy for teaching students to construct questions.

Determining validity and relevance

[Pullout:Students must consider the source in the context of their own thinking.] Students must do more than simply consider the source — they must consider the source within the context of their own thinking. The source must meet basic evaluative standards but that is not enough. It must also provide information within the scope of the assignment or topic; it must suit the purpose and contribute to the problem solving process. A student who uses all this evaluative information when discerning the appropriateness of a source is a discerning consumer of information. The student is information literate.

If the goal is to teach students to be discerning information consumers, then the pathfinder may include opinions or ratings — when a student explains why they chose a resource for this assignment, they are demonstrating understanding of the evaluative process. Some key questions students may ask themselves are similar to the questions asked in a variety of evaluative activities like those found on QUICK, an online guide for checking information quality. In addition to gathering the basic criteria about the author’s background and the currency of the information, the best information evaluation tools help students distinguish between fact and opinion, identify bias, and consider the relevance of the information to the problem or assignment.

If you want students to think critically about sources you must create a rubric that includes criteria for a thoughtful and focused pathfinder. This rubric includes the basic expectations for evaluation, organization, and mechanics, but adds criteria for source selection, encouraging students to include consideration of source relevance in the process. By requiring students to add an evaluative element to their pathfinder, you are requiring comparison between like resources and rewarding students when they use this information to make decisions.

Making connections

Students who evaluate information sources must distinguish between fact and opinion, identify bias and determine relevance. These critical thinking skills are even more essential given the information available to students in today’s media-rich world. Assigning a pathfinder, or using thoughtfully designed, existing pathfinders in research assignments, develops the skills and models the habits of mind necessary for managing in the information age. Contextualization, the incorporation of new materials into the existing material the student has already mastered, increases the chance that they will remember what they learned well beyond a test.

Pathfinders aid in making connections. By classifying, sorting and sequencing information sources, students are forced to think about the sources in the context of the larger picture — the topic assigned, the questions asked, even beyond the context of the subject and across disciplines. Students who succeed in synthesizing the connections may discern patterns and discover trends beyond the assigned topic. Evaluation and selection require students to employ compare and contrast, which are higher level thinking strategies. Finally, as globalization increases, common cultural context decreases. Considering all perspectives (including minority, religious, cultural, socio-economic perspectives, etc.) is important to understanding.


Research is a process. Transforming assignments to require critical thinking builds skills essential to the research process — questioning, identifying bias, evaluation, predicting, and distinguishing between fact and opinion. It is important for students to see this as a process, and build the relevant skills in context. Inquiry-based learning activities provide an opportunity to engage the learner and to demonstrate the skills necessary for the 21st century. Assigning a pathfinder defines one aspect of the research process and can be, in itself, an effective information literacy assignment.


  • Alsup, Janet, and Jonathan Bush. “But Will It Work with Real Students?” Scenarios for Teaching Secondary English Language Arts. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003.
  • Kuntz, Kelly. “Pathfinders: Helping Students Find Paths to Information.” Multimedia Schools. Vol. 10 No. 3. May/June 2003.
  • Pappas, Marjorie L. “Changing State Digital Libraries.” School Library Media Activities Monthly. Volume XXII, No. 5, January 2006. pp. 24–27.