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5 Ways Faculty Can Improve the Quality of Student Research

Students experience many barriers to producing quality student research. They may suffer from library anxiety, have a flawed understanding of the process and nature of research, or not understand faculty expectations for the assignment.

Students experience many barriers to producing quality research. Library anxiety is one. They mistakenly believe that they should be able to navigate a library by the time they reach college, and they feel shame that they cannot. Alex Nunes suggests that this current generation of students has an additional level of complexity for library instruction: because they have great confidence in their own (untaught) research abilities, they tend to dismiss the value of libraries.[1] Thus, they are not prepared to produce quality student research.

William Badke observes that “Google has created a generation of answer-seekers.”[2] Their expectation, says Badke, is that they can search for information on the internet with the same precision as ordering a pizza. He continues to explain that scholarly research is different; it is the search for “evidence [‘discussions, investigations, reviews of literature, facts, and opinions’] that can help the searcher move toward an answer.”[3]

With these challenges in mind, there are five suggested steps that you as faculty can take to help your students produce quality research:

1.  Examine your assignment descriptions. Faculty, who have been researching and writing for years, assume that their students understand what is required to research and write papers. They do not. You may not realize that as fewer middle and high schools employ school librarians, students come to college without research skills. Students also have trouble transferring learning from one course to another (more below). Additionally, faculty assignment descriptions may read like short-hand. Here are a few examples from faculty syllabi:

  • The paper must be 6–8 pages of content (i.e., not counting the title page, table of contents, bibliography), with at least 5 different sources
  • Scholarly Paper on a topic approved by the Professor.
  • Prepare a Term Paper on a topic of your choosing. The Term Paper will serve as the main project for this class and will be broken down into stages each of which will be graded individually. Term Papers will be 10 pages in length.
  • Submit 2 medium-sized research papers.

The common feature of these assignment descriptions is paper length. One paper mentions the sources to be used. However, many details are left unsaid that contribute to a well-researched paper, including the quantity,[4] quality and variety of sources, as well as including the opposing viewpoint. Faculty should deliberately allocate points for the quality of sources used and expect good sources, not just good enough; this affects the paper’s quality.

Students often confuse relevancy with quality, so it is important for faculty to review students’ bibliographies before they write their papers. Requiring a variety of source types (books, articles, websites, statistics, etc.) helps students become comfortable with unfamiliar sources of information. This detailed example gives students clear guidelines:

Students will write a double-spaced, 10-page research paper with a minimum of 15 sources. These sources will be evaluated for quality and include a variety of types and formats (depending on research topic). The types and formats include, but are not limited to, 1–2 reference (encyclopedia or dictionary), 1–2 biblical commentaries, 5-7 scholarly books (or popular, depending upon topic), 4–6 journal articles, and 1–2 select web pages. Include sources that provide an opposing or alternate view to your argument.

2.  Create a LibGuide for your course.[5] A LibGuide creates dynamic links from the recommended sources to the library’s online catalog and the databases. Library staff, with the input of the faculty member, can create and maintain any number of guides that will direct students toward quality reference works, books and e-books, journals, or specific articles, videos and webpages, etc. Start with transforming the static course bibliography appended to the end of the syllabus or create a guide for a specific research assignment.

For example: compare/contrast the Christian doctrine of salvation with two non-Christian religions using at least four sources—this guide includes lists of library sources by world religion.

3.  Provide a link in each of your courses to the library’s and the writing center’s websites through the institution’s LMS (Learning Management System, e.g. Blackboard, Canvas, or Populi). These links promote use of the library (etc.) by the faculty and will occur at a student’s point of need, saving them the time and effort of navigating the institution’s website to reach the library or writing center.

4.  Grade on the quality of the library sources your students use. Faculty usually grade on the content of the paper, but the first critical thinking decision students make are the sources on which they base their arguments. Is this explicitly stated in the paper’s rubric? Students will work to the minimum standards required of them by the faculty. If you are using a rubric to grade a student’s paper, review that rubric and make sure that the important elements are also included in the course assignment description—do not make this a puzzle that students must piece together.[6]

5.  Remind students about the portability of their skills. Students need to recognize that what they learned in the research and writing courses, or other courses where library research is taught, are skills that can be used across the curriculum. Students tend to compartmentalize their learning, not realizing that what they learned in one class should be used in every other class they take—even if you tell them they can.

James M. Lang, in his 3-part series, “Why Don’t They Apply What They’ve Learned,” explains the difficulty students have with the portability of knowledge/skills.[7] Because students have trouble transferring what they have learned between courses, you might want to schedule a library session with your students.

Students experience many barriers to producing quality student research. They may suffer from library anxiety, have a flawed understanding of the process and nature of research, or not understand faculty expectations for the assignment. Faculty who are aware of the challenges that students face when assigned a research paper may find one or more of the tips above to be of benefit.

[1] Alex Nunes, “Do You Suffer from Library Anxiety?” JSTOR Daily, April 13, 2016, https://daily.jstor.org/do-you-suffer-from-library-anxiety/.

[2] William Badke, “I Did the Search, Now What?” Online Searcher 42, no. 5 (Sept/Oct 2018), http://www.infotoday.com/OnlineSearcher/Articles/InfoLit-Land/I-Did-the-Search-Now-What-127267.shtml.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A general guide for the quantity of sources needed for a paper is 1–1.5 sources per page. I tell my students that to collect any fewer sources will require them to work those sources harder.

[5] LibGuides by Springshare are used by many academic libraries: https://www.springshare.com/libguides/.

[6] Students are more likely to get frustrated and give up or simply miss the additional instructions if they are divided between the syllabus, the rubric, and the assignment link in the LMS.

[7] James M. Lang, “Why Don’t They Apply What They’ve Learned, Part 1,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 21, 2013, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Dont-They-Apply-What/136753; James M. Lang, “Why Don’t They Apply What They’ve Learned, Part 2,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 19, 2013, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-They-Dont-Apply-What/137389; and James M. Lang, “Why Don’t They Apply What They’ve Learned, Part 3,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 20, 2013, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-They-Dont-Apply-What-They/137963.

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