These tips to help students successfully complete research assignments are based on results of studies conducted by Project Information Literacy (PIL), an ongoing national study of college students' research practices.
Using focus groups, surveys, interviews, and content analysis, PIL's studies have involved over 11,000 students, 57 U.S. colleges and universities, and 191 course-related research assignment handouts. Links in the tips lead to research findings supporting the recommendation and related resources.
1. Define research as it applies to the assignment or discipline.
2. Break the research assignment into manageable parts.
3. Review criteria for evaluating sources.
4. Discuss plagiarism, its consequences, and how to avoid it.
5. Explain how research will be evaluated.
6. Encourage students to consult a librarian.
7. Embed a library research guide in Blackboard, or request one from your librarian.
8. Suggest specific library databases or resources by name.
9. If appropriate, direct students to a variety of library resources.
10. Collaborate with a librarian on a research assignment.
Defining research as it applies to the assignment or discipline gives students the situational context that they lack and need (Finding Context, p.9). Additionally, 63% of students found in-class discussions about how to conduct research helpful (Lessons Learned, p.30). A review of 191 research assignment handouts from 28 campuses found that a majority included the mechanics of the assignment (page length, margins, etc.), but only 16% “discussed, clarified, defined, or framed what research meant as it applied to the assignments” (Assigning Inquiry, p.26). Interviewed faculty members stated that undergraduates have little knowledge of the research process.
College students find many steps of the research process difficult. Getting started is problematic for 84%, defining a topic is troublesome for 66%, and narrowing down a topic was challenging for 62% of students surveyed (Truth Be Told, p.3). Break your research assignment into manageable parts (i.e., "scaffold" it). You might require that students turn in a topic proposal, followed by an annotated bibliography in which the reasons for selecting sources are noted, and then perhaps a draft along the way to the final product. Sixty-one per cent of students reported that separate deadlines for parts of a paper are helpful, and 71% felt the same way about instructors’ review of drafts (Lessons Learned, p.30).
Only 25% of handouts studied discussed how to evaluate the authority of sources (Assigning Inquiry, p.19), and 49% of students sought their instructor’s help in evaluating sources for research assignments (Truth Be Told, p.13). Review criteria for evaluating sources (e.g., authority, point of view or bias, currency, content, accuracy) in the context of your discipline or assignment, so that students learn how and why to select quality sources. The library's Evaluating Information Sources guide can help.
Only 18% of handouts studied mentioned plagiarism, focusing primarily on disciplinary actions (Assigning Inquiry, p.21). Based on faculty interviews, undergraduate students have trouble understanding what plagiarism is. Define plagiarism for your students, show them how to correctly paraphrase and attribute words and ideas, or refer them to related resources. The library's Citing and Writing Help guide includes material about plagiarism and how to avoid it. The UHCL Writing Center also addresses this concern.
In an earlier PIL study, 12 of 13 students reported their greatest frustration was determining their professors’ expectations for a research assignment (Beyond Google; Students' challenges and obstacles, paragraph 4). Be precise and open about how your research assignments will be evaluated. Consider having students work through exemplars of well done or poorly done assignments. Provide students with grading rubrics, and/or weight parts of assignments according to importance of desired outcomes. See sample research paper scoring rubrics for chemistry/biochemistry and for psychology, which were created by the Educational and Behavioral Sciences Section, Association of College and Research Libraries.
PIL’s content analysis of research assignment handouts found that only 13% recommended consulting a librarian (Assigning Inquiry, p.3). In one PIL survey, 80% of students reported rarely, if ever, seeking help from a librarian with course-related research (Lessons Learned, p.3), yet in an early study, 63% of students reported frustration due to their inability to find resources (Finding Context, p.3). In a more recent study (Truth Be Told, p.25), 42% of students had difficulty finding articles in library research databases -- less than the majority but still a significant number of students who need help. Librarians are experts in planning a research strategy, searching for and locating information, and easing frustration with the research process. Encourage your students to contact us, and provide them with the URL (https://uhcl.libanswers.com) for our Ask a Librarian service, which includes live chat, forms for scheduling individual appointments, and multiple ways to reach caring, patient, professional assistance.
Interviewed faculty stated that online guides “have the potential to engage students in the research process and allow students to browse as they would in the library” (Assigning Inquiry, p.12). In addition to providing assistance in finding information, many of our guides include resources specifically for background information, which will help students with topic-development-related context needs (Lessons Learned, p.21). Create a Blackboard link in your course shells to lead students to a relevant library subject research guide. We also offer course guides customized to your content and assignments -- contact your subject liaison librarian or the Coordinator of Library Instructional Services to request this service.
Of the assignment handouts studied that recommended using online library resources, only 14% mentioned specific databases by vendor or name (Assigning Inquiry, p.3). As PIL researchers noted, this is like providing students with "city roadmaps with no street names included" (Assigning Inquiry, p. 15). Find research databases and other resources for your subject discipline in the library's subject guides and in Databases A-Z. Your program liaison librarian also can help you identify resources for specific needs.
Sixty percent of handouts studied recommended students access physical materials on library shelves (Assigning Inquiry, p.11), but the majority of the library's current collections, especially journal subscriptions, tend to be provided online. Depending on the nature of an assignment, direct students to a variety of formats -- in addition to journals, ejournals, books, and ebooks, there may be video, audio, or image resources in physical or digital formats. Direct students to OneSearch or the Library Catalog to discover them. Experience with a variety of information resources in traditional and digital formats will be useful to students when they're in the workplace (Assigning Inquiry, p.28; Learning Curve, p.9).
About 50% of faculty interviewed mentioned their collaboration with librarians. "Faculty turned to librarians for teaching students about finding information and planning a research strategy, especially choosing and using appropriate databases, and for creating custom resources, such as pathfinders [online guides], for their course" (Assigning Inquiry, p.13). In addition to providing library research skills instruction and customized course guides, librarians can help you design or update an assignment. When students are more highly skilled at finding and using high quality information sources, they should be able to devote more time to working with and interpreting the content critically.
Content adapted from and used with the permission of Temple University Libraries.
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