Applying the I-search Approach to Student Directed Career Exploration

By Terry Templeton


As a teacher continuing my education, I was given an assignment to write an “I-Search” paper. The I-Search paper presented me with the opportunity to research anything of personal interest. With running as my topic, I used my new found knowledge to improve my performance and complete six marathons. Personalizing the assignment made it all the more engaging and meaningful. I later modified this approach for career exploration, while working with special education students. My students found this experience equally as rewarding, and it made the career planning experience more relevant.


Application to Career Planning

An I-search paper is a less formal method of researching a topic that many teachers utilize to facilitate learning in the classroom (Macrorie 1988). Using the “I-search” method, rather than the traditional research approach, allows students to pick their topic of interest and address their audience in a personal format. In the process, students employ many skills, incorporate state standards of learning, and master course content. This gives them the opportunity to display creative strengths in areas, such as technology or the arts. Through the application of this method, students practice how to access resources, interpret vocabulary, organize their thoughts, and analyze the new found knowledge, form hypotheses, and conclusions (Macrorie 1988). Also, students can practice not only writing skills but also communication skills while sharing what they have learned. These creative strengths may also lead to a future career path.


Career counselors and students can also benefit from using the I-search method when exploring future career paths. Career counselors and coaches can lay the groundwork for this approach by administering informal career inventories and assessments to determine students’ interests in career clusters or specific jobs. Students are then asked to research the careers identified that they might want to pursue in the future, using the I-Search approach. The I-Search method consists of both the process and the product, which is the outcome of using the approach. These two essential constituents of the I-search method are detailed in the paragraphs that follow.


The Process

Once the students have picked a particular career through the counselor initiated career assessment, they are then encouraged to develop a variety of questions about what they would like to know and brainstorm ideas on how to find answers. Students use multiple resources to find answers to the questions, including internet searches, job shadowing, interviewing workers in the field, visiting job sites, etc. These questions, which entail the process, serve as a framework for arriving at the finished product. The questions are modified to match the grade level and abilities of each student.


Essential questions that should be included initially are as follows:


  • Why did you pick this career?
  • Students can elaborate on their personal interests, values, and skills that lead them to the chosen fields.
  • What do you know about this career?
  • Students can share pre-existing perceptions they have about the careers.
  • What do you want to know about this career?
  • Students can determine more detailed questions about each chosen field, such as required education and training, the job market, salary, schedule, benefits, etc.
  • What is the story of your search?
  • Students can describe the different resources that they used during their search by describing the search in detail.
  • What did you learn?

At the end of the search, students can determine how their findings might impact future career choices, the pros, and cons of the chosen career and if they still have the same career interests. Students may also be able to develop a path for their career development if they continue in the chosen field.


The Outcome

Students are encouraged to utilize the questions to guide the exploration process to its outcome, which is the product. The final product does not have to be a written paper as this may not be the best method of communicating mastery of learning objectives for every student. To accommodate students with varying abilities and disabilities, each student is presented with options. For instance, younger students or students with disabilities who may not have good writing skills could choose another way to demonstrate their final product. Rather than creating frustration over possible writing deficits, counselors and coaches should strive to build students self-confidence by choosing age and ability appropriate methods. For example, counselors can focus on students’ strengths by giving younger students and students with limited writing ability the option to use hands-on projects, drawings, or other methods to communicate their outcomes with minimum writing involved.


Students could create a visual and oral presentation to share with classmates and teachers the story of their search or make a PowerPoint presentation, a video, a performance, etc. The possibilities for creative products are endless. For example, someone choosing a career as a musician could write and sing a song about their journey. Someone choosing a career in the field of communication and technology could create a video to tell the story of their search. Students can even dress up to play the role of their future career figure when presenting. By focusing on students’ abilities rather than deficits, they will be more engaged and willing to participate.


Benefits of the I-search Method

Using the I-Search approach means students and their peers are provided with the opportunity to gain knowledge about many careers while practicing to use the very skills that will make them successful in the world of work, and become the leaders of tomorrow. Applying the I-Search approach results in students taking charge of their career exploration, sharing what they learned with others, and, in the process, receive meaningful feedback. The outcome goes beyond accomplishing academic and career development objectives; it allows students increased self and occupational knowledge while taking ownership and connecting with their future career path.


Reference and Resources

Macrorie, K. (1988). The I-Search Paper. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Putting it in writing: The I-search paper. Retrieved from swcontent.spokaneschools.org

Read write think: Putting it all together with student directed inquiry. Retrieved from http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy/guides/promoting-student-directed-inquiry-30783.html

Writing the I-Search paper. Retrieved from http://www.gallaudet.edu/tutorial-and-instructional-programs/english-center/citations-and-references/i-search-paper-format-guide


Terry TempletonTerry Templeton has served as the Principal of Rivermont School - Dan River, a special education private day school in Danville Virginia for the past 5 years. The 12 Rivermont Schools are the largest system of specialized private schools in Virginia, serving students with disabilities, primarily Emotional Disabilities and Autism and part of “Centra” Health Care System. Prior to taking the role of principal, Terry worked as a teacher for “Centra”, as well as other alternative special education settings for at risk youth for the past two decades. She holds a M. Ed. In curriculum and instruction from The University of Virginia Curry School of Education, a special education endorsement from The University of Virginia, a certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder from Old Dominion University and a B.S degree in health and physical education from Liberty University. Terry recently completed the NCDA Career Development Facilitator Training. Terry Templeton can be reached at terry.templeton@centrahealth.com




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