Supporting Students’ Introduction to Research
As a librarian, I’m often asked to visit classes in advance of research assignments, usually to discuss topics related to finding scholarly sources of information. A few years ago, I started asking a simple question when visiting classes at the 100 or 200 level: How many of you have read a scholarly journal article before? While the number of raised hands I saw would vary, I can’t say that it ever surpassed 50% of the students in the room.
Making the transition to the expectations of college research is a significant hurdle students face in acclimating to academic work. They’re asked to use an unfamiliar type of literature, with its own idiosyncratic customs and system of organization, and which is best discovered using its own unique search tools.
Bearing these realities in mind, below are a few tips to help provide students with a supportive, inclusive introduction to research at the college level.
Remember the Research Process
In a 2010 study, Project Information Literacy analyzed 191 research assignments collected from 28 different colleges. What they found was that the assignments often emphasized the final product to the exclusion of the process of getting there. That is, while they had a lot to say about the paper, presentation, or project, they said very little about the process of conducting research. Making small changes to your assignment descriptions and assessments to emphasize the research process lets students know that they will need to devote effort to this area in order to be successful. This may be particularly helpful when it comes to smaller assignments, which students often don’t interpret as involving research, even when they include an information-gathering component. Perhaps most significantly, emphasizing the research process signals to students that it’s important to you, their instructor.
Introduce and Contextualize Scholarly Literature
As demonstrated in the anecdote above, students often find themselves asked to use scholarly journal literature before receiving a proper introduction to the genre.
Consider whether your students could answer the following questions:
- Why are journal articles written?
- How are articles best approached as a reader and researcher?
- What are journals, and what is their purpose?
Students’ earliest experiences with journal articles often lack contextual cues that could help them answer these questions. Taking time to introduce the journal article as a form and the role it plays in scholarly discourse can help students navigate the literature and make sense of what they find.
…we often see cases where students have interpreted “no internet resources’ or “no websites’ to mean anything accessed online…
Don’t Underestimate Your Influence
In a 2018 study of student interaction with online research guides, Western University librarians found that no matter how much instructional content they included, students would default to whatever database they’d heard their professor mention. Use this power for good! Recommend databases or resources by name, and include these in the assignment description so students have them at hand. If you provide limits on the types of sources your students may use, be careful and specific in how you do so. In the library, we often see cases where students have interpreted “no internet resources” or “no websites” to mean anything accessed online, as opposed to sources from the open web versus those in the Libraries’ scholarly databases. Finally, include the contact information for your department’s subject librarian in your syllabus and research assignments. This lets students know that you recognize and value their librarian as a partner in the research process, and increases the likelihood that they will do the same.
These small changes will leave students better equipped to start making sense of the scholarly research process, while limiting frustration and fostering success in their early college careers.
Al Bernardo is NDSU Libraries’ Social Sciences Librarian. He received his MLIS from Kent State University in 2015, and has been teaching students about library research since beginning at Valley City State University in fall semester of that year. In addition to his professional duties, he is currently a student in the Introduction to College Teaching course.