Beyond Homework Help

Posted On July 13, 2014

What every parent should know about school projects in today’s digital whirl

By Sue Robinson

Back to school advice and tips in Columbia SC

The digital age has transformed homework, projects, book reviews and research papers. Savvy parents monitor their children’s online social lives and wise parents today also effectively coach their youngsters to achieve information literacy. This entails evaluating information, finding reliable sources and correctly crediting others’ work.

Good habits learned early will carry forward to more advanced academic work. Whatever your child’s age or stage, you can help him or her become a better researcher and, therefore, a better student.

You may not know …

Never more so than today, organizing a project can be overwhelming.       

Whether it is an 8-year-old illustrating a timeline of an explorer’s exploits, an 8th grader writing about the history of pirates, or a senior researching his first seminar paper, everyone struggles with focus. The best first step on any project is to clearly understand the assignment and then to narrow the project’s scope so that the research can be clearly focused.

“Students are overwhelmed with information, in both digital and print forms, but they’re often not even aware of the overload,” says Ruth Thompson of the South Carolina State Library. She trains public and school librarians across the state in how to effectively use Discus, South Carolina’s vast virtual library.

She and other information experts advise that thinking about a project, talking it over with your student, and developing a research strategy is a smart move for parents who want to help their children with research.

What’s the best way to start researching a topic you know little about or to get an idea of how to focus it? The answer may be the same as when you were a student.

A general encyclopedia often gives a wonderful overview of a topic and can serve as a helpful springboard into deeper research,” Thompson says. “As popular as Wikipedia is, however, most educators do not consider it an acceptable source. Turn instead to the Britannica School online encyclopedias provided by Discus. Britannica School has traditional encyclopedia articles, multimedia, maps, magazines, website recommendations and much more.”

 Librarians may operate differently than when you were in school.

Today’s information professionals are not stuck behind desks. They work side-by-side and in a hands-on ways coaching students. Some are available by phone, email, chat or text. Their job is to help students succeed so tap their expertise.

For instance, the Lexington County Public Library system’s Ask a Librarian program takes reference questions by email and promises a fast response (within 24 hours except for weekends and holidays). The State Library’s Ask a Librarian program also takes email questions. The Richland County Public Library system librarians are available by phone, email, text message or Instant Message/chat and you can even book a learning coach to set up one-on-one help with a research project.

 The platforms have changed but the best practices are the same.

Today’s students might use Power Point or Prezi or an iPad for a class report. Or, their presentation might be an interactive multimedia story rather than a paper with one-inch margins and double-spaced text. Robust new platforms demand visual and audio elements. Just because you can find it on the web doesn’t mean it can be used without attribution or that it can be used at all. Copyright law is complicated and, in the digital age, evolving. Usually, if used for academic purposes in a classroom setting, use is allowed under “fair use.” But works used must always be cited.

“Parents should remind their children that anytime you use something – words, images – that someone else created you must give them credit,” stresses Rebecca Thomas, who supervises youth services for the Richland County Library system. “This is true for a website, a photograph or a book. Children often don’t realize or understand that someone wrote a webpage because there is no obvious author. Parents and teachers should always remind children that you cannot use text verbatim from a website, just as you can’t copy sentences straight from a book.”

You should know …What resources your child has at school, at the public library and online.

Ask your PTA to host a program on research resources. Visit your public library and explore their websites. Vast resources are at your fingertips. The Lexington Public Library, for instance, offers the 3M Cloud Library. This free app syncs to all devices so your student can check out a book and read it on the go – on reader, smart phone or tablet. [http://www.3m.com/us/library/eBook/howitworks.html]

Discus – South Carolina’s Virtual Library – offers reliable resources free around the clock. According to Thompson, Discus has age-appropriate resources. Young students in K-3rd grade will enjoy BrainPOP Jr. and Kids InfoBits. CultureGrams is perfect for older elementary students studying people and places. And secondary students can find a wide variety of sources on most major topics in the Student Research Center.

How to steer your student beyond Google.

Go beyond a Google search and Wikipedia. While there are many great websites, full of factual information, there are also many websites with incorrect or incomplete information,” says Richland’s Thomas. Databases available for free on the library’s website are reliable sources. “Students can trust everything they read in an article or entry in a library database because it comes from an authoritative source.”

Some go-to online resources you can turn to if your student needs help.

Here are 10.

  1. Discus, South Carolina’s Virtual Library, will meet most needs of most students. [http://www.scdiscus.org/]
  2. Creative Commons licensing allows people to share their images, art and more. Search for these free sources through Google and Flickr. [http://creativecommons.org/]
  3. Homework Help resources are posted on many library websites. Bookmark your library’s.
  4. International Children’s Digital Library lets you search by age group, length, imaginary characters, children as characters, etc. [http://en.childrenslibrary.org/]
  5. Bookmark Open Culture.com—a collection of resources for all ages and stages. [http://www.openculture.com]
  6. Audio books appeal to reluctant or challenged readers. [http://www.openculture.com/freeaudiobooks]
  7. Columbia’s Richland Library, like most public libraries today, offers a host of free downloads. [http://www.richlandlibrary.com/recommend/directory-free-downloads]
  8. Reference management systems like Zotero and RefWorks automate saving of information, editing citations, creating bibliographies from your browser. South Carolina’s Discus system also helps students manage and format citations. The databases in Discus generate citations for a bibliography or works cited page.
  9. Advanced students should explore The Purdue “OWL” (Online Writing Lab), a compendium of citation and style, plagiarism and academic integrity that will set a firm foundation for college. [https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/]
  10. The South Carolina Department of Education offers a link to “Parent Guides to Understanding Academic Standards.” [http://www.scfriendlystandards.org/]


Richland Library, 799.9084, richlandlibrary.com/

Lexington County Public Library, 785.2600, lex.lib.sc.us/

State Library of South Carolina statelibrary.sc.gov/

Virtual Library of South Carolina, Discus, scdiscus.org/


So, your student needs a 3D printer for a science project or wants to animate a book report?

Students today enjoy vast opportunities to create and make original academic works. Creative teachers often give students options of presenting research in formats—multimedia, digital, oversized—beyond the traditional paper. State-of-the-art equipment and software can be found through media centers and libraries as well as commercial copy and print shops or other maker spaces.

One new resource is the Teen Center at Richland Library-Midlands. The contemporary, high-tech, 1,200 square foot space opened in 2013. Seating is for 12- to 18-year-olds only.The center’s staff will help coach your students. In addition to a teen books and magazines, the center offers:

  • Animation center
  • 3D printers
  • Microsoft Surface Windows 8 Laptops
  • iPad 2s
  • Microsoft Pixel Sense Touch Table
  • Apps for Pixel Sense (interactive learning and gaming options like Space/Tic-tac-toe/Bing)
  • iMACs
  • HP all-in-one desktop computers
  • Xbox 360 / Nintendo Wii / PlayStation2
  • 60-inch Flat Screen Monitor
  • WhisperSync Vocal Recording Booth
  • ReadyAnimator Stations

The Real Scoop

Organize yourself, organize your kids, and set priorities for assignments


Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. That tops the list of organizational and study tips offered by University of South Carolina students and graduates to elementary, middle and high school students.

“Setting goals, planning, reaching out to your teachers, exploring what you like to do, and eventually, when you get to high school, exploring how those likes can become careers is super important,” says USC student Khadijah Dennis. “Most importantly, enjoy every moment while you can.”

Good time management ensures academic success, says Garen Cansler Parker, who holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in journalism from USC. “Learn time management when you’re in school, “ she says. “It’s really important learning how to prioritize your time and to prioritize assignments.

“When you start at the beginning of the school year, you feel like you have this huge expanse of time ahead of you,” she said. “But it goes a lot faster than you anticipate. So, instead of looking at it as, ‘I have all of this time,’ capture the moment now and understand the end will be here a lot sooner than you think.”

Key to pulling off a good school year is starting projects as soon as the assignment is given, according to current and former USC students. “Complete homework. Anything further I say will be hypocritical, as I actually absolutely never studied prior to college -- which turned out to be horrible,” says Chelsi Chabourne, a USC honors college student who graduated this past spring with a biology degree. “Developing study skills is very important, rather than pursuing a higher education and finding out you have no idea how to study.”

Dennis says students should be consistent in when and how they study, “tuning out any distractions that keep you from your study goals.” Parker says students may be misled by how well they do in middle and high school classes.

“High school was pretty easy for me,” she recalls. “I didn’t have to study a whole lot until I hit senior calculus, which kicked my butt. But I was able to do enough to get by. When I got to college, I had the same expectations because school had always come easy to me. And my first year of college, I did not do well.

“One was the time management aspect of it. Knowing that there papers coming up, I would think I could wait until the last minute to get them done. But, then you have all these other classes, and other projects will come up. I would always have other work to do.

“It just becomes a speeding train,” Parker said. “And when the train gets ahead of you, it’s hard to catch up.”

Parents should be certain they have major input into why, how and when their children study. Not only does that include leading by example (continuing to learn as an adult), it means being an active participant in daily homework, outside-of-school learning opportunities and positive approaches to schoolwork.

Chadbourne remembers her own parents’ rules. During her school years, she was required to finish her homework when she got home from school. That system meant homework was done before dinner, or if she had an extracurricular activity, right after dinner. “Firstly, I never stayed up late to finish routine homework. Secondly, I was able to fully grasp concepts, especially those that were taught in smaller steps, that I do not think I would have been able to adequately understand if I had skipped practicing several parts of the process,” Chadbourne said.

Dennis says parents must realize that the school system is not the same as it used to be when they attended school. “There is a whole new curriculum and societal influence on the average student so it’s important to learn how to adapt to these changes to further help you child succeed in this day and age.”

And Parker notes, “Learning takes place as much outside of the classroom as it does within. Parents have the opportunity for a lot more hands-on learning with your kids. You read a book all day reptiles indigenous to our area or you can take your kids to a state park and actually find those reptiles.

“What you learn from a book and what you learn from experience are both valuable, but experience seems to stay with you a bit more because you have all those emotions and memories from what you experienced.”

Tips for Parents

* Reach out to teachers. Ask them about how to continue effective learning at home.

* Provide a learning support system that starts at home. Encourage reading and, again, learn by example. If you don’t read much yourself, change that and read more.

* Ask your children about their homework, even when they’re in high school. Be certain daily homework assignments are completely done. Read over them if you’re uncertain. And encourage your children to come to you with questions.

* Get help for the student struggling, even if that struggle is only in one subject such as math or a foreign language. Hire a tutor or ask the teacher for extra help.

* Learn about new technology to be able to help your children. Be alert and involved in their activities on social media.

* Take your children to the local public library, to museums, to art festival, to special exhibits. Make learning fun!

Independent Study

When the kids go back to school, work on a self-guided educational project (or two) of your own

By Sue Robinson and Cecile S. Holmes

Back-to-school season gives everyone in the household a fresh start. When school goes back in session and the fall routine solidifies, many parents also feel the energy of the season. They want to start something new: sign up for that art class, start a new journal, enroll in a workshop, finish a certification program, or get serious about working on an advanced degree. What better way to set an example of lifelong learning and good study habits than to do your own work alongside your children?

Higher education opportunities

The Midlands offers a cross section of places where adults can jumpstart their brains. In addition to other local colleges, both the University of South Carolina and Midlands Technical College offer classes to take towards particular degrees, continuing education opportunities and certification programs.

For example, at USC, the Office of Continuing Education and Conferences offers Carolina Classroom. It features a collection of noncredit lectures, workshops and explorations. Courses grouped around the topic, “The Great Outdoors,” give all ages a chance to learn about plants, animals, garden, landscaping and other subjects. Or you can enrich your knowledge of the arts. Or bone up on that foreign language you’ve almost forgotten since college. An assortment of opportunities waits. http://www.saec.sc.edu/cec/

At Midlands Tech, you’ll find a cross section of possibilities. Programs listed in the Midlands Tech’s online catalog include animal control, audio engineering, responsible bartending, fitness and wellness, event and wedding planning, floral design, even cake decorating. http://www.midlandstech.edu/cce/

Learning at the art museum

The wealth of learning opportunities for adults in the region extends to the Columbia Museum of Art which offers more than 800 programs a year for children and adults. “Each one is an effort to make art and education available to as many people as possible,” says Dickson Monk, the museum’s communications manager.

In a brand new project, the museum soon will begin its “Creative Age Initiative.” Using a grant awarded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, that initiative will provide expanded programming to the ever-growing population of senior adults in South Carolina. Other existing programs include “About Face Drawing Sessions” in which a group of artists, representing a range of abilities, draw working with a live model. Another class, “Artist Furniture Makeover,” has students working with an instructor. In that class,

a two-day, hands-on experience, participants “add some spunk” to their junk by customizing a small piece of furniture to reflect their own styles. http:// www.columbiamuseum.org

Short on time?

Cannot commit to a formal class? Embark on a self-directed study, a reading program of your own. Pick a topic that interests you and set doable goals such as a book per month. Share what you’re reading or learning with your family.

Fill in some of your own educational gaps. Were you a sciences or business major with no interest in the humanities? Did you never read much of the bard and find yourself a blank when someone makes a joke with a Shakespearean quote? Choose an author and read several titles. Add a biography of the writer. An e-book gives notes and annotations. Supplement your reading with online sources that help you understand symbolism and archaic language. Watch movies based on the books.

Pick a year, any year. Find books or plays that were published or performed in that year. Look for nonfiction and movies made near the year of your child’s birth, your birth, your parents’ births, or a time you wonder about. Read both fiction and non-fiction. Look for prizewinning works. Find an online timeline of milestones. Landmarks such as this year’s World War I centennial and recent D-Day invasion and Brown v. Board of Education anniversaries might inspire you to know more.

Feeling really time pressured? Choose a short story collection or poetry. Read a poem a day. Supplement your reading with a biography or online research about the author.

Go back to your childhood. You might be surprised how rich your reading was or, if you weren’t much of a reader, what you missed. Revisit old favorites or seek the classics. Enrich the experience by reading biographies of the authors you are now revisiting as an adult.

Explore one topic that fascinates you—the economy, politics, art history, baseball, business, science, the Fed, jazz, global warming, poverty, gardening, fashion, you name it. Dive in.

Read at the adult level about your children’s passions and hobbies—constellations, superheroes, video games, dinosaurs, science fiction, fantasy, comic books, sports, animals. It will enrich your conversations with them and add to your cool-parent score.

And, cut yourself some slack. You do not need to finish every book you start. Giving yourself a taste of the writer’s style expands your knowledge. If a book doesn’t capture your attention, move on to one that does. Invest your precious self-study time well, in what interests you.

Some specific ideas

Interested in people who created and built successful businesses? Ford, Chanel, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Edison? Read their biographies. Put Walter Isaacson’s recent Steve Jobs bio on the list.

Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas about Southern families, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, will not warm your heart but they will make you think.

Explore Paris and Ernest Hemingway with the fictional, The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain. It details the start and end of the love story of the writer and his first wife. Read it alongside Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast. It chronicles those heady days in Paris in the 1920s with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others. Read the 2009 edition.

For an armchair travel experience that goes beyond the typical guidebook, discover Bill Bryson. His wry style and tart observations will give you belly laughs. You’ll also learn a lot. Read him with a map or atlas. He’s written about Australia, Great Britain, the United States and the Appalachian Trail.

Editor’s note: Hope you’ve been inspired. What fun awaits!