Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 2

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Social Studies Scavenger Hunts


Karen Johnson, West Chester University, PA


Johnson, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Early and Middle Grades Education.



Thirty-nine elementary education methods students participated in a social studies methods undergraduate course “scavenger hunt” project. Their web-based scavenger hunt assignment was sent to local elementary schools. The participating methods students found the assignment useful for learning how to structure appropriate web-based scavenger hunts for elementary students in social studies. They also benefitted from the opportunity to delve into one curriculum area, knowing that elementary students would use it. Results support continuing to offer this type of assignment in social studies methods.



As a methods instructor of teacher education undergraduates, the choice of course assignments are extremely important. Not only must you verify that your methods students have learned the material, you must also provide them with experiences creating lessons, activities, and units that they can use in their future classrooms. When a course assignment includes technology, content, and pedagogy, the future teachers have something that they will likely use in future classroom assignments. The use of a web-based social studies scavenger hunt provides methods students with practice making something that they can use with elementary students right away, and includes technology.


A web-based scavenger hunt is a teacher-created, content-specific task that entails sending elementary students to specific websites (through hyperlinks in a slideshow) where they search for the answers to questions on a content topic. The goal in a scavenger hunt is to either introduce elementary students to a specific area of content, to guide elementary students to learn more about the content being studied, or to have elementary students review what they have learned about a specific content topic. I started creating these when I was teaching elementary school and have recently added it to the undergraduate social studies methods classes at the university where I currently teach.


The purpose of this article is to provide other methods instructors with the details of a technology and social studies integration assignment (the web-based scavenger hunt) as well as to share the benefits of taking the scavenger hunt assignment one step further and sharing it with actual elementary teachers and students. After reading about the components of the scavenger hunt assignment, as well as the challenges and benefits associated with it, methods instructors could begin implementation in their methods courses, particularly in science and social studies. This assignment is especially useful for the hesitant technology user, since the web and a slide show computer program are the extent of the technology needs, yet the assignment integrates technology and social studies instruction.


Literature Review

Professors in colleges of education are faced with the important task of modeling technology integration in their classes. Specifically, methods courses are an extremely important place for that modeling to occur, so that teacher candidates see first-hand how to include technology into teaching. Over the past several years, methods instructors have been utilizing technology in more meaningful ways in their instruction of future teachers (Honawar, 2008, Doppen & Lipscomb, 2005; Schrum, Skeele, & Grant, 2003; Mason & Berson, 2000), but now that meaningful technology use needs to continue into the K-12 classrooms. Even though K-12 teachers have better access to computers than in the past, most teachers are still not integrating technology into their teaching in effective ways (Franklin & Molebash, 2007). In most classroom situations, teachers are using their computers mainly for tasks involving preparation and administration, as opposed to using them for instruction with students (Franklin & Molebash, 2007). Or, when computers are utilized during a lesson, the teacher is the only one actually using it, while students are observing (Herrington & Kervin, 2007).


Social studies instruction has historically been less interesting and engaging for elementary students than other subjects (Zhao & Hoge, 2005). Integrating technology into social studies lessons so that students are engaged and learning the content in an active way is one method that teachers are now using to combat the dreaded, boring textbook lessons (Tanner, 2009; Torrez & Waring, 2009).  In fact, Taylor & Duran (2006) found that most of the teachers who participated in their project teaching their history lessons using technology reported that their students were more motivated and involved.


Technology use by teachers in the K-12 classroom should be directly related to curriculum, be high quality, and be engaging (Bell, 2009). Considering the current literature, modifying existing course assignments in social studies methods to create a unique assignment is important. This assignment would focus on making social studies learning fun for elementary students, including technology that could be used directly by elementary students, and making sure that the methods students were learning to create something useful for not only this semester, but in their future classrooms as well. In that way, current teacher candidates would be able to begin their teaching careers with examples of how to integrate technology into their social studies instruction to make learning more meaningful for elementary students.


The Scavenger Hunt Requirements

Social studies methods students over the fall 2009, spring 2010, and fall 2010 semesters were assigned the task of creating a web-based scavenger hunt on a topic taught in third, fourth, fifth, or sixth grade social studies. These methods students were preparing to teach in Kindergarten through grade six, so this assignment was for the upper grade levels of their certification. The methods students who volunteered had a list of possible curriculum topics.  Elementary teachers in local schools who volunteered to participate in this project had provided several topics that their elementary students would be studying two months later. That timeline allowed for the methods students to research and create their scavenger hunts, and time for the instructor to grade it and, if necessary, ask for revisions before it was sent to actual elementary classrooms.


The methods students participating in the project took the following steps.  First, the methods students chose a topic from the list given to the instructor by the elementary teachers (for example: Ben Franklin, William Penn, the Canadian Provinces). After researching the topic and examining the types of websites available, the methods students had to decide whether the scavenger hunt could be completed on that topic with the resources that were available on the web. In some cases, the availability of appropriate websites was lacking and a scavenger hunt was not the best option for that topic. In those cases, the methods students chose a different topic from the teachers’ lists. However, if the methods students determined that the quality of the websites was acceptable for young students, then they began the process of actually creating the hunt. Second, they needed to decide on the content questions that they would ask, making sure not to trivialize the topic. They also had to be sure that the elementary students would be able to find the answers to the questions they chose, and that those elementary students would be engaged and learning about the topic through this hunt. Later, as they put everything into a slide show, the methods students had to add graphics and design options to make it visually appealing. Specifically, the methods students were required to send the elementary students to at least three different websites and to ask at least six appropriate, not trivial questions. They were not allowed to have the URLs showing on the slides, and they needed to end with an enrichment slide.  The purpose of the enrichment slide was to provide extra emphasis on the topic for those students who finished quickly, leaving the rest of the class time to finish the scavenger hunt.  The enrichment slide provides the elementary students with links to web games or other web-based fun activities directly related to the scavenger hunt topic. The methods students also had to create a worksheet for the elementary students to have in front of them. The same questions from the slideshow would also be on the worksheet. By having the actual paper copy of that, rather than an electronic copy, the elementary students would have a place to record their answers without having to switch back and forth between so many documents on their computer.


The instructor then emailed the scavenger hunts out to the elementary teachers. Some elementary teachers chose to bring laptops into the classrooms to have the elementary students complete the scavenger hunts during class, either in pairs or individually. Other teachers placed the scavenger hunts on their school’s library website so the elementary students could access them from home as a review before a unit test.



Over the course of three semesters, thirty-nine methods students volunteered for this project (out of 180 methods students in these courses). The volunteers who participated in this project created the scavenger hunt on the topic requested by an elementary teacher. At the end of the semester, the methods students completed a survey. They answered ten questions about the scavenger hunt project. The survey questions appear at the end of this article. Many of the questions on the survey (questions 1-8 & 10) were open-ended. The survey data was collected, coded, and analyzed each semester, and then jointly after three semesters of participation to determine categories of responses for each question. Each survey was given a number, for organizational purposes, and when exact quotes are used below, the survey number is noted (#1-39, one for each of the participants). Each methods student whose scavenger hunt was sent to an elementary teacher received three extra credit points, in a course that had a total of 281 points.



The results for using this type of assignment were positive. Overall, the 39 participants were overwhelmingly in favor of this assignment with 97 percent of them noting that the scavenger hunt assignment should become a permanent assignment in this course for all future methods students. Methods students wrote of the value of completing this kind of assignment. One student indicated, “Of all of the lesson plans I wrote at this university, this scavenger hunt assignment was one that I could see using in the classroom with any subject and any grade level.”(survey #9).  Additionally, the participating methods students rated the importance of this assignment on a Likert scale from one to five, with one signifying “not at all important” and five signifying “extremely important”. One participant (3%) rated it a two, “barely important”, four students (10%) rated it a three, “somewhat important”, twenty-five students (64%) rated it a four, “very important”, and nine students (23%) rated it a five, “extremely important”.   


Survey question number four focused on elementary students. “Did you learn anything about elementary students from working on this project?” Focusing on one class and grade level did help methods students learn about elementary students. The majority of the comments were general comments about elementary students (41%). These responses indicated that the methods students needed to think like a student, be clear with directions, make sure the scavenger hunt was organized so that the students can understand it, and, “I learned that students love hand-on activities and that they feel valued when they can participate” (survey #1). The second category to emerge from this question’s responses had to do with technology (28%). These responses were along the lines of remembering to check websites carefully to make sure that they were appropriate for children, to make sure the students could find the answers to the scavenger hunt questions on the chosen websites, to make sure the websites didn’t have distracting popup advertisements, and, “that students will click on anything online”(survey #3). The third category of responses were about curriculum (21%). One of those responses was, “I learned how to work with a lot of material and narrow it down to the important stuff 5th grade students need to know” (survey #28). Finally, four students (10%) responded that they did not learn anything about elementary students from this project.


Whereas the above question focused on elementary students, the next question focused on elementary curriculum. The methods students were asked, “Did you learn anything about elementary curriculum from this assignment?” The results were broken down into two major themes: Curriculum specifics (84%) and technology (16%). The majority of the responses in the curriculum specifics category focused on how or what the methods students learned about the topic that they researched. For many of these students, this was the first time that they were required to delve that deeply into one area of social studies curriculum. Certainly, they do so during student teaching, but this class occurs before student teaching.  Some examples are, “I learned what is important about Ben Franklin” (survey #4) and “Yes, I learned more about the Canadian Provinces” (survey #6). The technology answers focused on how much they learned about using websites to find appropriate materials for students.


The methods students were also asked what they thought was the most useful aspect of the scavenger hunt project (survey question number two—see Appedix A). The majority of the answers were related to technology. Methods students reported that this was the first assignment where they were forced to look at websites carefully, because elementary children would view the websites. They never realized how difficult it is to find age appropriate and content-appropriate websites that are acceptable for children to view. Another category that emerged from this question was determining if a real teacher would use this scavenger hunt with a real classroom of children. Methods students are used to completing assignments that are purely theoretical, classroom assignments that do not get used on actual students. When given the opportunity to have one of their graded class assignments used by elementary children, they were feeling validated. Their work was not just for a grade, but had a more important purpose. A third theme for this question pertained to actually being in the classroom when the elementary students tried the scavenger hunt. Methods students who were invited into a classroom to lead the class through their scavenger hunt spoke of the importance of that experience. There was a variety of answers to this very open-ended question, but the three most common themes were worth noting.



Methods students in this project found the scavenger hunt that was used by an actual elementary classroom valuable for learning specifics about one grade level’s curriculum, learning how to integrate technology into their teaching, and the difficulty of finding appropriate websites for students. “It’s very helpful in learning how to tie in curriculum and technology” (survey #3).


An overwhelming majority of the participants found the assignment important (87%), by rating it very important or extremely important. The qualitative data from the survey also lends support to that as well. “It is an interesting, fun, and interactive way to provide the information and use technology in the classroom (survey #11).   Another methods student said, “I never thought of using a scavenger hunt with websites for teaching/reviewing a concept (survey #16). Without many opportunities during their methods classes to interact with elementary students, this project provided the volunteer participants with an advantage over their peers who did not volunteer for this project. They created their scavenger hunt with the knowledge that it would be used in the coming weeks with real students, rather than creating it with the professor’s grading of it in mind.




The methods students remarked repeatedly in the open-ended responses on their survey that they benefitted greatly from this opportunity to create something and then have it used by elementary students.   A few of the thirty-nine methods students were invited into the elementary classroom to work with elementary students as they used the methods student’s scavenger hunt. According to their written comments on the survey, being part of that experience benefitted those methods students tremendously.


 Although this is not the main focus of this research, it should be noted that the benefits of this project were not only for the methods students. The elementary classroom teachers benefitted from using the work created by someone else. In the hectic week of an elementary school teacher, many found the scavenger hunt that was ready to be used, a welcome addition to a unit of study. Many teachers responded that they used them either to introduce a topic or to review a topic before a unit assessment.



One of the aspects in the beginning of the project that was difficult had to do with timing. The elementary teachers would request topics that were coming up in their teaching schedule. Sometimes they would get to the topic before we were finished creating the scavenger hunts.  At other times, they would not need to use the hunts until our semester was already over. Then the student who created it did not receive feedback (from the elementary classroom teacher?). Our solution, after the first semester, entailed outlining the assignment clearly within the elementary teachers the timetable, and including the methods student’s university email on the hunt itself. The teacher could then contact him/her directly to provide feedback, answer questions, or even invite the methods student to view the elementary students using the scavenger hunt.


A second aspect of the project that was a challenge had to do with the types of topics the elementary teachers requested. Some of the topics for which they wanted scavenger hunts were not appropriate.  For example, the request for a scavenger hunt on “The Age of Exploration” did not work for our methods students, who do not have the textbook to narrow down the topic. Some of the Native American topics were difficult because of a lack of high-quality, age-appropriate websites for children to use. After completing one semester of this project, I was better able to suggest to the elementary teachers, which topics worked best, based on their units of study. That helped alleviate this issue, but it is a challenge for anyone using this assignment for the first time.


Future directions

In the 2011-2012 semesters, as this researcher attempts to include more methods students’ scavenger hunts in regular elementary classrooms, the effort will focus on pairing methods students with student teachers. Student teachers, who are in their culminating, semester-long practicum, are already in elementary classrooms and are overwhelmed with all of the lesson planning they need to complete over fifteen weeks. Social studies methods students can offer their scavenger hunt as one lesson that the student teacher can use during the course of a unit. This might provide more methods students with access to a classroom of elementary students who will try out their scavenger hunt.



Methods students have the unique experience of learning how to teach the content that will be required of them in their future roles as teachers. Methods instructors have the challenge of providing methods students with a variety of useful strategies for teaching, hopefully integrating technology appropriately and effectively so that learning can occur. The inclusion of a web-based scavenger hunt in a social studies methods class is a simple, yet effective assignment that methods students can potentially use in their future classrooms. Once they have created one, they will be able to apply that creation process to many different science or social studies topics in their future teaching. The benefits to the methods students are worth the instructor investing the time to find classrooms to utilize their scavenger hunt assignments. 




Appendix A.

 Survey Questions

1. Why did you volunteer for this project initially?

2. What was the most useful aspect of this project for you? Please explain.

3. Were you able to observe in the classroom when your scavenger hunt was being used? If so, please explain what you               learned from that, if anything.

4. Did you learn anything about elementary students from this project? Please explain.

5. Did you learn anything about social studies curriculum from this project? Please explain.

6. How, if at all, did you benefit from participating in this project?

7. How, if at all, did you provide help to someone else by participating in this study?

8. Did you receive helpful feedback from the cooperating teacher about your scavenger hunt? Please explain.

9. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest, how important was this assignment in regards to your learning about     elementary students and curriculum?

1  Not at all                                       

2  Barely  important                                                      

3  Somewhat   important                

4  Very important             

5  Extremely   important

10. Should this be an assignment for students taking this course in the future?

               Why or why not?                              Any other comments?



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