The following tips for faculty to help students successfully complete research assignments are based on the results of studies conducted by Project Information Literacy (PIL), an ongoing national research project that examines undergraduate student research practices.
PIL’s methodologies have included a survey of over 8,000 students from 25 U.S. college campuses; a content analysis of 191 course-related research assignment handouts from 28 campuses; and student discussion groups at 7 campuses.
The Top 10 ways faculty can help improve student research skills
1. Encourage students to consult with a librarian.
2. Direct students towards a variety of library resources including print, electronic, and multimedia.
3. Suggest specific databases or other library resources by name to students.
4. Discuss what constitutes plagiarism as well as the consequences.
5. Review criteria for evaluating sources.
6. Define research.
7. Embed a research guide in Blackboard or request one from your librarian.
8. Break the research assignment into manageable parts.
9. Explain how research will be evaluated.
10. Collaborate with a librarian to design a research assignment that employs critical thinking.
Top 10 ways to improve student research skills with links to Project Information Literacy Reports and findings. (Click on the link in each tip to see the research findings that support the recommendation.)
60% of handouts recommended students access materials on the library shelves (Inquiry, 11). However, today’s college students are more Web-focused and an increasing percentage of library materials are available digitally. Direct students towards library resources in a variety of formats and suggest using Find It to discover them.
Of the handouts that recommended using online library resources, only a minimal number (14%) mentioned specific databases by vendor or name (Inquiry, 3). USF Libraries have over 400 research databases for all disciplines that can help focus student research, so suggest a few by name to your students.
Only 18% of handouts mentioned plagiarism, mostly in a superficial manner (Inquiry, 21). Based on faculty interviews, undergraduate students have trouble understanding what plagiarism is. Take time to define plagiarism for your students, show them how to correctly paraphrase and attribute words and ideas, and refer them to USF Libraries’ research guide on Citing Sources and these handouts on plagiarism and using sources effectively.
Only 25% of handouts discussed how to evaluate the authority of sources (Inquiry, 19) and 49% of students sought their instructor’s help in evaluating sources for research assignments (Truth, 13). Review criteria for evaluating sources (e.g. reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness, and point of view or bias) in the context of your discipline or assignment, so that students learn how and why to select quality sources.
While a majority of the handouts discussed the mechanics of the assignment (e.g. page length, margins etc.), only “16% of the handouts discussed, clarified, defined, or framed what research meant as it applied to the assignments” (Inquiry, 26). Interviewed faculty members stated that undergraduates have little knowledge about the research process. Defining research as it applies to the assignment or discipline gives students the situational context that they lack and that they need (Context, 9) . Additionally, 63% of students found in-class discussions about how to conduct research helpful (Lessons, 30).
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 is challenging for 62% of students surveyed (Truth, 3.) So break your research assignment into manageable parts for students (also known as “scaffolding”.) Require that students turn in a topic proposal, an annotated bibliography, or a draft along the way to the final product. Students reported that separate deadlines for parts of a paper are helpful (61%), as are instructors’ review of paper drafts (71%) (Lessons, 30.)
In an earlier PIL study, 12 of 13 students reported frustration determining their professors’ expectations for a research assignment (Beyond Google). Be specific and open about how your research assignments will be evaluated. Provide students with grading rubrics and weight the assignment(s) according to importance of the desired outcome.
About 50% of faculty interviewed discussed their reliance on 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" (Inquiry, 13). Librarians can also help you design an assignment that will develop your students’ critical thinking and research skills.