• August 29, 2015

Research-Assignment Handouts Give Students Meager Guidance, Survey Finds

Most research-assignment handouts given to undergraduates fail to guide the students toward a comprehensive strategy for completing the work, according to two researchers at the University of Washington who are studying how students conduct research and find information.

And despite "seismic changes in the way that information is now created and delivered," most such handouts call for a traditional research paper, the researchers say in a progress report on Project Information Literacy, a continuing national study based at the university's Information School.

The researchers found that while handouts typically contain instructions on the mechanics of constructing a paper, few offer a full explanation of the research process.

"They really felt like road maps with destinations, but no street names," said Alison J. Head, co-director of Project Information Literacy.

Professors expect students to be proactive enough to find sources on their own by the time they reach college, said Ms. Head, yet they frequently end up with research papers that fail to do more than meet formulaic standards.

Faculty members interviewed for the study expressed few assumptions about their students' abilities to conduct research. An anonymous humanities instructor quoted in the report estimated that 95 percent of his or her students "really don't have much of a clue about completing research assignments."

Ms. Head and her fellow director, Michael B. Eisenberg, analyzed 191 research-assignment handouts given to undergraduates at 28 colleges across the country, in courses spanning a range of academic disciplines.

They found that a majority of the handouts specified rules such as page length and citation style, but offered limited recommendations for research sources. The advice found in the handouts reflected a traditional approach to research, said Ms. Head.

Sixty percent of the handouts directed students toward library shelves, while 43 percent suggested that students use online library sources. However, only 13 percent suggested that students consult a librarian during the research process.

"The process of research is being represented as linear, instead of a process that's organic," said Ms. Head.

A 'Google-First Mentality'?

Approximately one-quarter of the handouts suggested using the Internet as a research tool, while 13 percent discouraged or prohibited students from using any Web sites.

According to Ms. Head, professors who prohibit the use of the Internet typically fall into one of two categories: those whose assignments depend on primary sources, such as direct interviews with subjects, and those wary of the "Google-first mentality" prevalent among many undergraduates.

However, she said, the latter group of professors may underestimate students' ability to process information, given their familiarity with the Internet.

"Things have changed so much, but assignments haven't," she said. "Digital natives are different, and teaching them is different."

The study found that 83 percent of assignment handouts called for a standard individual research paper, as opposed to alternatives such as collaborative, oral, or multimedia projects.

Ms. Head and Mr. Eisenberg analyzed handouts for the diversity of their suggested sources, combing them for recommendations of library resources, course readings, primary sources, and the Internet as elements in the research process. Assignments in the arts and humanities were the most likely to suggest all of those resources.

The researchers say handouts should provide more. "An ideal assignment might be, 'Pull something from YouTube and also look at New York Times coverage, and also you might want to look at how the wire services cover it,'" said Ms. Head.

"There's a voyeuristic quality to handouts," she said. Professors may ask themselves, "Am I doing the right thing here?"

"I think this study gives professors an opportunity to question whether they're accomplishing what they want to do with their handouts and whether, if they included different details, it might give them better research papers at the end of the day," she said.


1. mbelvadi - July 28, 2010 at 06:30 am

Did the researchers distinguish lower undergrad from upper undergrad courses? Or whether the syllabus accompanying an assignment handout included scheduled class time with a librarian who would give a far more detailed explanation than could probably be put in a handout? As a librarian, I would rather the instructor not try to oversimplify an explanation of the bibliographic research process and tools into a short handout, but rather make time for me to meet the class and teach them directly what and how to use the tools specifically relevant to this assignment. I've often seen that when instructors do try to get specific on handouts, they get things wrong, like listing a particular database that our university doesn't have access to (e.g. a competing product they saw at another institution), or, god forbid, listing out a few specific journal names, as if browsing individual issues of particular journals was a useful way for an undergrad to begin their research (it virtually never is).

2. blendedlibrarian - July 28, 2010 at 07:20 am

As with the other PIL reports (and the next one) this adds to our understanding of what faculty and librarians can do collaboratively to improve research assignments, help students become more effective researchers, and get beyond the mechanical skills of search to the higher level skills of evaluation and synthesis. I do think this article would have benefited from some comments from librarians and faculty who are collaborating on research assignments. It could have also brought attention to the fact that academic librarians have been working for years (I don't think this report's findings come as a surprise to any reference librarian) to collaborate with faculty to design more effective research assignments. There is a rich body of literature in library science that discusses the value of and ways in which research librarian input into assignment design improves the assignment. As Head might put it - librarians help to put the street names on the map.

Many librarians offer assignment design workshops for their faculty. What this report appears to tell us is that faculty need to take advantage of the opportunities librarians are offering to assist with designing more effective research assignments. Almost any reference librarian could easily share a story about a research assignment from hell that has undergrads tearing their hair out or coming into the library in tears because they have no idea what they are expected to do. The point isn't to spoon feed students step-by-step instructions on how to complete a research assignment. But when faculty think more carefully in advance about the guidelines and instructions students will need to complete a research assignment, students will spend less time spinning their wheels on getting starting and figuring out what to do (the next PIL report - still in progress - will show that the "getting started" step is a huge research problem for students) - and they'll spend more time having a productive learning experience and discovering research doesn't have to be a painful experience.

3. ticklemepink - July 28, 2010 at 08:21 am

Two things.

1) Professors need to realize that not all high school education are created equally. Freshman year IS the time to equalize everyone's skills and knowledge. Hold those freshmen's hands.

2) Mention librarians- which ones should they consult? There are different reference librarians for each particular academic subject (if at a R1) and faculty should name those who are more able to help.

3) Put in a note that the faculty member is AVAILABLE if there are further questions on how to go about doing a research paper.

It drives me nuts, even as a graduate student, when professors don't give a few pointers on what they expect from a research paper.

4. rebeccastates - July 28, 2010 at 10:11 am

The criticisms of suggested sources does not apply well to science based research papers. For a science paper, I don't want my students considering articles from the popular press, opinions from the internet, or multi-media sources. I want them to read research articles published in scholarly journals which they can easily access via PubMed or Google. If they want to get some background information from a text book or add some illustrations off the net, fine. Otherwise, a "diveristy" of sources is counter-productive. Please recognize that research papers in different disciplines require differnt sourcing!

And as noted in a previous reaction, your study doesn't take into account what previous advice was given to students about how to search and do the other aspects of the project, nor doe the study consider whether students have additional assignments for group projects, abstracts, posters, presentations etc. Sometimes focusing just on reading and integrating several strong research studies is a very useful exercise!

5. slinky - July 28, 2010 at 10:13 am

Students don't just need guidance on what kinds of sources to use or how to find them. Many of our undergraduates don't know what to do with sources -- they tend to skim an article, looking for a quote that sort of fits what they're writing about, and plop it into the paper. We need to teach them how we use scholarly books and articles not just as sources for a few quotes but as sources of insight into issues and problems. We also need to help students think about research as a process of moving from observations to hypotheses to analysis and argument. In my own research, students reported that they figure out what they want to say almost immediately, based on their first impressions of the literature they're writing about, and then immediately move to constructing an argument. We need to help them learn to slow down and think critically.

6. violaman - July 28, 2010 at 10:27 am

As a librarian, in the past at one institution, I would actually come to the class to discuss how to do their research assignment, and would grade a preliminary assignment related to their research. As someone who has also taught graduate courses in research, I found that students had widely differing experiences as undergraduates. Some were well trained in the basics of research, others had barely written any type of research papers as undergraduates.

7. caitlinyaeger - July 28, 2010 at 11:26 am

Students are expected to arrive at college with research skills? Professors are hoping for the moon with this one. High school students VERY RARELY learn research skills that prepare them for college-level research. That is what freshmen seminars and introductory level classes should be for.

8. kgschneider - July 28, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Actually I think this is new information to a lot of librarians. One of the suggestions is that faculty, not students, should be the focus of information literacy instruction. There are cultural barriers to that shift that need to be addressed for that to happen.

9. murleenray - July 28, 2010 at 03:06 pm

While I can agree that current generations are using digital and the internet more, I can't go so far as to claim that students "do digital" better. In fact, my own experiences as a tutor as well as an instructor has shown that freshmen students in particular appear to 1)lack knowledge of, and experience with many forms of academic research practice, 2)require basic instruction and practice on how to identify credible sources, 3)often demonstrate a lack of interest/focus in finding those sources; relying, instead, on quick searches with little depth, citing abstracts (never bothering to read the article), and 4) have difficulty even understanding the articles that they do find and read, as well as having an ability to read critically and draw relevant data from what they read. Heck, they still struggle with how to summarize an article properly.

Research is a complex and demanding activity for even highly movitated students. What bothers me about this article is the notion of front-loading our assignment rubrics and burying students with too much information. I've seen the glazed eyes of students who won't to read their syllabi and homework assignments. Giving them a thick "how to" manual with a research assignment goes against what I know about students' usual habits. Furthermore, while a "how to" provided by the instructor may give some instructors and students a sense that the mysteries of research have been revealed and codified, I have to agree with mbelvadi that this one-dimensional approach is misleading to students. I myself was introduced to research as a freshman through a hands on session with the librarian. That session was invaluable; and so I've used this method with my own students.

Students need to know who to talk to, where to go, as well as how to do it; a face to face with the librarian makes it personal. Our librarians are there for the students and we need help students to make use of them. A session or two on research in class, coupled with a homework assignment that reinforces basic research strategies, along with a whole class session with the librarian seems to give students a good beginning in research.

Some hand-holding is good, but college students are at a threshold where they are being asked to take charge and become proactive in their own education; we can't think for them, and we can't do it all for them. Research is a skill that takes time and practice that they will develop throughout their academic career.

10. janetc - July 28, 2010 at 04:17 pm

In my first-year writing class, I have students use Wikipedia as a PRESEARCH tool to get it out of their systems. They get some context, maybe some key words; sometimes look at debates by contributers. They go forward with support from our wonderful library staff to use reference guides, appropriate databases, etc. We build questioning and critical thinking in class through several iterations of the paper. Our writing center helps those who are weaker writers. I make these steps and objectives and resources clear for each stage, but I certainly don't include all details in any one handout. At the end of the course, I expect them to carry these skills into future coursework.
This is teaching, not hand holding.

11. duchess_of_malfi - July 28, 2010 at 06:58 pm

The report is frustrating. It doesn't clearly distinguish between a review of existing research literature, which is what most students mean by "research paper," and a paper reporting on a more ambitious project--original research.

My students arrive with very limited research skills, the writing center is not able to help them with any advice other than organizational and mechanical elements of writing, and I omit many of the items that the report says are necessary from the "handout"--yet my students write predictably bad, fair, good, or excellent papers based on effort and time more than on pre-existing skills.

The assignments I post to Blackboard do not include information about sources; that's in a source-finding guide. The grading rubric is a separate document. The assignment doesn't include my office hours, etc.; that's what the syllabus is for. The purpose of the assignment, something the study doesn't mention, is included in it. Sample papers are on Blackboard. All this information won't fit in one document; I've found that students tend to read and understand it better if they read it as separate items, so it is in several. We also spend a great deal of time talking about papers in class, after class, in email, looking for sources together and draft consultation in office hours, etc. The assignment itself is only one part of the how-to instructions.

Why are they encouraging us to require multimedia (PowerPoint?) or oral presentations instead of papers? I've tried the presentation route and it is hellish, but even if it weren't, a presentation is not a paper. Doesn't writing matter any more?

The report also attempts to draw a conclusion that does not follow from the evidence: that these omissions matter. They say, "Our ongoing study is grounded in information-seeking behavior research" and refer to a previous study on "how students seek information in the digital age," but they do not present any research to show that how students write papers is how they should write papers, or that there is a connection between assignment-instruction variables and quality of papers. I would be unable to use this report as a model of a good research paper.

12. kgschneider - July 28, 2010 at 07:53 pm

duchess_of_malfi, one of the first steps in information literacy is learning how to correctly interpret the assignment. This report isn't about *writing* papers, it's about approaching the research process.

13. duchess_of_malfi - July 28, 2010 at 08:02 pm

"Approaching the research process" means understanding how research is done. The "research paper," a review of previous research literature, is only the first of many steps in that process. I see no indication in this report that this organization is concerned with students' understanding of the research process--and the underlying question of all research, "Why does this matter?" is not asked or answered.

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