Explore potential strategies.
Students don’t have the prerequisite knowledge and skills, but think they do.
Research is a complex skill requiring diverse sub-skills. For example, some of those skills are very procedural (e.g., How to use a database), while others involve critical thinking (eg. Evaluating search results). Still others require strategic thinking (e.g., knowing what tools and procedures are appropriate/efficient for different research questions). Furthermore, in addition to developing proficiency in all of these areas and more, students must be able to integrate all of them. It is likely that students do not possess these skills because many of the research assignments in high school were easily answered by Wikipedia and the free web (e.g., Google). Because students were able to perform successfully in high school they my have false assumptions about their research abilities. In addition, we faculty may correlate technological competency with solid research skills when in reality, these skills must be taught and practiced.
Once you have decided what particular research skills are important in your course, you can design a questionnaire asking students to self-assess in those areas. Students typically might have difficulty in accurately assessing their own skills, but each academic department has a liaison librarian, who is available to assist you in designing the pre-assessment. The Eberly Center can also help you in this task.
If students lack the research skills they will need to meet your course objectives, then you must teach them in tandem with your course content. As with any other skills, you should address the relevant sub skills in class and give students opportunities to practice and provide them with feedback.
Discuss with students the level at which you expect them to perform and how it differs from high school. For example, you might say, “Rather than simply regurgitating a ‘report’, I expect you to a) generate a research question, b) search for and retrieve appropriate sources according to the following criteria, c) analyze and evaluate those sources, d) synthesize them into a position.”
You can never be too explicit. Instructors tend to err on the side of vagueness, even when they think they are being very clear. For instance, if you are requiring 5 papers for a literature review, students may default to a simple Google search unless told otherwise. Some instructors further detail their assignments, specifying that papers need to be peer-reviewed, or that they need to come from a menu of approved scholarly journals. Other instructors have policies in their syllabi which forbid students from citing Wikipedia as a source on certain kinds of research projects. Depending on your course objectives, these or other policies might be appropriate.
Each academic department has a liaison librarian, who is a subject specialist able to provide subject-oriented research skills instruction for small groups and classes. Services vary from in-class to in-the-library instruction, and are customizable according to your needs (e.g., from explaining the collection or the available databases to creating research guides for your class and helping students to evaluate sources). Liaison librarians are also available to help you specify research learning objectives for your course. For a list of liaison librarians visit http://www.library.cmu.edu/Services/sliaisons.html.
Demonstrate for your students the process you engage in when doing research. For instance, you can take your students through a sample literature search. Talk yourselves through how you conceptualize a topic, narrow it down to be manageable, identify relevant data bases, perform searches, analyze search results for relevance, decide which ones to investigate deeper, refine or expand the search once you identify a few good hits, iterate the process, and finally assess that your information needs have been met. This will show students all the various skills involved as well as highlight the reasoning behind the process.
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