Research-Assignment Handouts Give Students Meager Guidance, Survey Finds

July 27, 2010

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.