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Guide Tries to Help Students Decide What to Cite

Students don’t research like they used to. And they have a hard time evaluating the credibility of information they find, both in print and online. At least that’s what two instructors at Mesa Community College saw in their courses. So the instructors, Rochelle L. Rodrigo and Susan K. Miller-Cochran, who is now an associate professor of English at North Carolina State University, wrote The Wadsworth Guide to Research, published this year by Cengage Learning. In November they presented some of their teaching strategies at the New Media Consortium’s Rock the Academy symposium, in Second Life.

Ms. Miller-Cochran talked to The Chronicle about how to help students determine when a source is reliable.

Q. What gave you the sense that students needed help?

A. If you look at most textbooks for writing courses now, they tend to teach students to categorize sources in one of two ways: library or print-based sources, or Internet, online sources. The fact is that it really doesn’t matter that much whether a source is online or print. We want students to be asking questions beyond that, to be thinking about who the author of the source is, how it has been edited before publication, things like that, other than just where it was located when they found it.

Q. How do you walk them through that initial evaluation?

A. We ask students to think about the publication process for something. Was it edited prior to publication, was it peer-reviewed, or was it self-published? Then we also ask them to think about how the source might change over time based on the way that it was published. Is it a static source that is just published once and then doesn’t change at all? Is it a syndicated source, something like a magazine or a journal? Or is it a dynamic source, something that could be changing constantly over time?

Q. How have you seen students’ habits change when they consider those questions?

A. The most immediate difference is that my students don’t go to Wikipedia or Google first. When they come into class, that is usually their MO. Now they’re much more likely to go to a library database, for example. And when they use the library database, they might choose the option to search only for scholarly articles, because now they understand the difference between something that’s peer-reviewed and something that’s just edited for a popular magazine.

They also have a richer understanding of the context of the research that they’re doing. So instead of just writing a research paper for me, the teacher, they’re thinking about who a possible audience for their argument might be. Thinking about who they might want to persuade about a particular issue — that governs the choices that they make about what sorts of sources they might use.

Q. How hard is it to pull students away from Google and Wikipedia?

A. It’s really hard. I mean Google and Wikipedia are really convenient. And they’re not evil.

A lot of teachers deal with Wikipedia by just telling students, “You can’t use it. It’s not reliable.” But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted them to actually understand how Wikipedia is written, how it’s constructed, how the editing and review process works, so that they could determine at what point in their research Wikipedia might be helpful.

Q. What came out of the symposium in Second Life?

A. I realized through that discussion that if more teachers, specifically English teachers, could partner with libraries in teaching research, we’d be better off. We don’t always work with the people that are at our own institutions who would really help us to have a richer understanding of the information and resources that students are finding. —Sara Lipka

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