The following tips for faculty to help students successfully complete research assignments are adapted from a list compiled by librarians at Temple University. These recommendations are informed by the results of studies conducted by Project Information Literacy (PIL), an ongoing national research project that examines undergraduate student research practices, and the ERIAL Project, a ethnographic study conducted by five Illinois libraries that investigated how university students conduct academic research and utilize library resources and services. For more information about these studies, click here.
Click on the link in each tip to see the PIL studies that support the recommendation. Page numbers refer to the book College Libraries and Student Culture: What We Know Now, which contains the findings of the ERIAL Project (copies are available from Hoover Library and through the CFE).
1. Define research.
2. Break research assignments into parts.
3. Encourage students to consult with a librarian.
4. Review criteria for evaluating sources.
5. Explain how research will be evaluated.
6. Direct students towards library resources in a variety of formats.
7. Suggest specific databases to students by name.
8. Provide guidelines for how to use online sources.
9. Discuss what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.
10. Talk to students about search strategies.
11. Request a research guide from your librarian.
12. Embed links to library resources and services in Blackboard or Moodle.
13. Collaborate with a librarian to design a research assignment that employs critical thinking.
14. Schedule a library instruction session.
While a majority of the research assignment handouts analyzed by PIL discussed the mechanics of the assignment (e.g. page length, margins etc.), only 16% "discussed, clarified, defined, or framed what research meant as it applied to the assignments” (Inquiry, 26). Although "digital natives" often have extensive experience with using the internet for personal research, course-related research is different in that it involves meeting the expectations of someone else (the instructor who will grade the assignment). Students interviewed by PIL researchers expressed the need for "situational context" when beginning research to help them figure out what their professor wants, how far to go with their research, and how to get a good grade (Context, 9). Define research as it applies to the specific assignment and/or discipline in question in order to ensure that students have the situational context that they need to be successful.
College students find many steps of the research process confusing. Both the ERIAL Project (p. 73) and Project Information Literacy found that students are particularly frustrated by those parts that can be classified as "task definition" (getting started, defining a topic, narrowing down a topic) and "self-assessment" (deciding when finished with research, knowing if a "good job" was done): 69% of the students surveyed by PIL researchers reported having problems with the task definition stage of research, and 41% reported having struggling with self-assessment (Truth, 27). Both of these categories of problems are the type that appear early on in the research process and make each successive stage more difficult. By breaking research assignments into discrete parts (or "scaffolding"), you can make it easier for your students to overcome the challenges they confront. Require students to turn in a topic proposal, an annotated bibliography, and/or one or more drafts prior to the final due date. 71% of the students surveyed by PIL reported that they found their instructors' reviews of drafts of their papers helpful, and 61% reported that separate deadlines for different parts of a paper were useful to them (Lessons, 30).
Breaking assignments into parts can also have a dramatic impact on the quality of student research. 8 out of 10 students interviewed by PIL researchers self-identified as "procrastinators," and a majority reported that they did not normally start thinking about, researching, or writing a paper until two or three days before it was due (Context, 7). PIL findings indicate that this behavior might be due in part to the fact that students have an "illusion of immediacy": because they are aware of the volume of resources available online, they misjudge how much time is truly needed to do course-related research (Lessons, 31). They therefore wait too long to begin and have to settle for low-quality resources as a result. This problem can be averted by requiring students to turn in evidence of research earlier in the term.
Although 63% of students surveyed by PIL reported being frustrated by their inability to find resources (Context, 3), 80% of them reported that they rarely, if ever, sought help from a librarian with course-related research (Lessons, 3). The ERIAL Project's findings suggest that this may be a result of the fact that students have a limited understanding of how librarians can help them. As one student interviewed by Project ERIAL researchers explained,
I really don't know much of what exactly they [librarians] do . . . in terms of research. My idea is that they're there if I ask, "I can't find this book. Would you help me find it? Where's this aisle? Where would I find education things--is it [on the] second, third floor?" Kind of that way--directions more than anything else. (p. 53)
Librarians are experts in planning a research strategy, searching for and locating information, and easing frustration with research. Be sure to recommend that students consult a librarian for assistance with their research. Even better, recommend a subject specialist librarian by name--Project ERIAL's findings indicate that students are increasingly likely to have completed their K-12 education without any help from a librarian, and the very term "librarian" may be unfamiliar to them (p. 103). Mentioning a librarian by name in research assignment handouts is one way to encourage students to take advantage of research assistance that they may not even know they're entitled to.
Although instructors interviewed by PIL researchers expressed frustration with the inability of their students to figure out which sources to use, only 25% of the research assignment handouts analyzed by PIL discussed how to evaluate the authority of sources, and only 11% included information about how to evaluate the currency of materials (Inquiry, 19). 76% of the students surveyed by PIL reported that they found written guidelines about what kinds of resources to use (and not to use) to be helpful (Lessons, 30): include information about how to evaluate sources in your assignment handouts to help students determine what materials are acceptable for them to use.
92% of the students interviewed in one PIL study reported experiencing difficulty with trying to figure out what constituted a professor's expectations for a research assignment, so much so that it sometimes even prevented them from beginning the assignment (Beyond Google). Be open and specific when telling students how research assignments will be evaluated. 96% of the students studied by PIL researchers considered their grade on an assignment to be of sizeable importance, yet only 36% of the research assignment handouts they studied included a rubric of some kind for the evaluation of the student's work (Inquiry, 23). Provide students with detailed rubrics that indicate what criteria will be used to grade their work and weight each one by importance to reduce student uncertainty about what is expected of them.
Both the ERIAL Project (p. 73) and Project Information Literacy found that today's students have a strong preference for materials that are available online. Today, thousands of scholarly resources are available online through a typical academic library website--here at McDaniel, for instance, our students can access millions of full-text journal articles, thousands of educational streaming videos, and a growing number of e-books through the Hoover Library website--but less than half of the research assignment handouts analyzed by PIL researchers required or advised students to use online library resources of this sort. Instead, 60% of the handouts they looked at directed students exclusively toward "place-based" resources such as books, course reserves, and print journals (Inquiry, 10). This may help to explain another trend observed by PIL researchers: student researchers appear to be driven primarily by "familiarity and habit" and rely on the same handful of resources, regardless of context (Lessons, 14-15). In other words, they think of research as a "competency learned by rote" instead of as an "iterative process that requires critical, thought, curiosity, ongoing discovery, and tenacity" (Inquiry, 27).
To combat this trend, encourage students to use library resources in a variety of formats, including online and multimedia resources. As one PIL report notes,
The approach to using multiple and diverse formats hit [sic] a pedagogical sweet spot: Students gain hands-on practice with determining the nature and extent of information they need and become proficient in processing information in all forms.
Students also learn how research and writing are changing in the digital age, as they become consumers as well as creators of information. These competencies and experiences are what students will inevitably need to apply in the workplace after they graduate. (Inquiry, 28)
Of the handouts analyzed by PIL researchers that did recommend using online library resources, only 14% mentioned specific databases by name (Inquiry, 3). ERIAL Project researchers reported that fully half of the students they interviewed in one study turned to databases that a librarian would most likely never recommend for their topic, and students who had not had a library instruction session exhibited substantial difficulty finding their way to any library database at all (p. 74), indicating that students do need guidance as to which databases to use. When instructing students to find journal articles or use library databases, suggest specific databases by name.
95% of the students surveyed by PIL researchers reported using Google for course-related research and 85% reported using Wikipedia (Lessons, 18), but this is not necessarily cause for alarm: there is considerable evidence from the ERIAL Project and elsewhere that most students use these resources alongside library resources (p. 72) and, not inappropriately, at the beginning of their research process to get an overview of their subject and to learn more about the terms and language used to describe certain topics (How Students Use Wikipedia). This is not to say, however, that student use of the internet for research is unproblematic. A common issue is this one described by a humanities professor interviewed as part of PIL:
My students have reported that they usually begin their research by doing a Google search on a very broad topic--let's say they have chosen the feminist movement. The student will search the term "feminist movement," read the first few entries on the search list and feel that they have conducted adequate research. However, I require that students cite at least three different credible sources of information on paper. This disqualifies many of the sources they would find in a broad Google search, simply because the sources have questionable credibility and often did not originate on paper. At this point students will go to the library catalog and utilize the same broad category for their search. Students will often get frustrated at this point because they "cannot find anything on their topic." (Inquiry, 12)
Another problem arises over confusion about the meaning of the term "online": ERIAL Project researchers encountered a number of students who interpreted this term to include articles available electronically through online databases (p. 114). Overall these findings suggest that while students know that internet resources like Google and Wikipedia can help them--and thus are likely to use them whether they are permitted to or not-- they are aware of the fact that they have limitations and thus should be used in conjunction with library resources. They do not fully understand how best to do so, though, and would benefit from additional instruction in this area. Instead of forbidding them outright, provide guidelines for how students can intelligently and effectively use internet resources to develop a better sense of their topic and to identify terms that they can use to locate scholarly library materials in the next stage of their research.
Only 18% of the research assignment handouts analyzed by PIL researchers mentioned plagiarism, and even of those that did discuss it, more than three-quarters (86%) addressed it in a cursory fashion. Instructors report that plagiarism is a nebulous concept for students, so much so that many did not understand it well enough to know when they were guilty of it (Inquiry, 21). Take the time to define plagiarism for your students: spell out precisely what it is, from copying word-for-word to paraphrasing and taking credit for someone else's ideas, and offer substantive criteria for how and why it occurs (and why it's on the rise in a copy-and-paste, computerized world) and how to avoid it.
Possibly the biggest impact that Google has had on student research is the development of an expectation among students for a specific kind of search experience: they assume that they will be able to access many resources through a single search bar using a simple keyword search. The overwhelming majority (90%) of the students observed in one ERIAL Project study conducted all of their searches "Google-style," using "any word anywhere," "all fields," or equivalent default searches, even when it was not appropriate to do so (p. 77). These students regularly overestimated the "obscurity" of their topics and when faced with unsatisfactory results, they tended to assume that the information they were looking for must not exist and showed a remarkable propensity to change their topic from one that was unique or interesting to them personally to one with more widespread or easy-to-locate coverage (p. 78). To prevent this from happening, discuss search strategies with students and advise them to seek help from a librarian if their initial searches are unsuccessful before changing their topic. This will also help combat another common problem observed by both ERIAL Project and PIL researchers, that of students feeling overwhelmed by too many results and being unable to narrow them down to a more manageable number (p. 79; Truth, 32).
Faculty interviewed by PIL researchers stated that online subject guides “had the potential to engage students in the research process and in the on-site foraging in the stacks that research often requires" (Inquiry, 12). To help jump start your students' research, request a customized, course-specific subject guide from your librarian.
To further encourage students to take advantage of the research assistance available from the library, talk to your librarian about how to embed links to library resources and services in Blackboard and/or Moodle. Resources your students might want to have at their fingertips include subject guides, citation help, Hoover Library's online catalog, a link to our Ask a Librarian online reference service, and/or contact information for individual librarians.
Project Information Literacy researchers report identifying a disturbing trend: many of the students in their study appear to have developed an information-seeking strategy that was "learned by rote, applied with dogged consistency, and resulted in respectable grades." Although far from being experimental, new, developmental, or innovative, these students' research methods were nonetheless sufficient to satisfy the requirements of many of their course-related research assignments, which according to PIL often indirectly encourage students to "half-heartedly engage in a narrow exploration of the digital landscape (e.g. assignments that state requirements, such as 'must use five sources cited in your paper')" (Lessons, 34).
Collaborate with a librarian to design a research assignment that develops students' critical thinking skills by requiring them to collect, analyze, and synthesize multiple viewpoints from a variety of sources
Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed by Project Information Literacy researchers reported that they felt in-class discussions about research strategies to use on course-related assignments were helpful (Lessons, 29). Schedule a library instruction session to give students the opportunity to get started on their research while you and a librarian are present to answer any questions they might have and help them with whatever problems they encounter. Additionally, ERIAL Project researchers discovered that students tend to overestimate their knowledge and ability and thus were not always able to identify when they needed help (p. 64). Hearing about the issues their classmates are having may spur some students to the realization that they are experiencing a similar difficulty.
Library instruction sessions can be customized to address any or all of the recommendations above, or we can come up with something completely new! Use our online form to request a session.
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