Course Assignments Fail to Train Undergraduates for Research in the Digital Age

Aug 06, 2010

Researchers at the University of Washington have released a progress report on Project Information Literacy, an ongoing study on how students find information. They found that class handouts offer outdated guidance on conducting research that does little to train undergraduates for seeking information in the twenty-first century.

Digital Information

Project Information Literacy (PIL) is an ongoing study conducted at the University of Washington's Information School, or iSchool, where researchers have been gathering data from young adults at all types of postsecondary institutions across the U.S. Their ultimate goal is to 'understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and 'everyday life' use and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance and currency in the digital age.'

Doctors Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg, both members of PIL, recently released a progress report on the project. Assigning Inquiry: How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today's College Students outlines their results from an analysis of 191 course-related research assignment handouts at 28 colleges and universities. They found that the handouts emphasized the mechanics of writing papers rather than proper techniques for research, and those assignments that did offer research guidance focused on vague and outdated tools. The researchers note that the handouts tend to teach students how to turn in successful course papers rather than how to find and use information in the 'digital age.'


Handouts Provide an Incomplete Guide for Successful Research

Head and Eisenberg assert that 'research assignments are a mainstay of many higher education course curricula.' As a process that demands 'inquiry, argument and evidence,' research projects are a core element of higher education and the academic tradition. At their best, they teach students to find information, formulate new ideas and support those ideas with both empirical fact and theoretical argument.

However, the quality of the project guidelines can have a major impact on the efficacy of the assignment. Previous research from PIL suggests that students rely heavily on written guidelines - 76% of over 112,800 students surveyed said that handouts are one of the most helpful materials a professor can provide, especially those that guide students to the proper sources. In fact, handouts were second only to assignment-related email exchanges with instructors.

Because handouts are such an important part of students' research training, PIL set out to find out what sort of 'instruction, guidance and support' the documents provide to students during the process. They found that the majority of handouts focused on the mechanics of preparing the assignment, rather than substantive information on forming and implementing a research strategy. Few handouts actually provided guidance on where to find information, and those that did offered vague and often inapplicable suggestions. 'They really felt like road maps with destinations, but no street names,' said Ms. Head in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Most sources provided on the handouts reflected an outdated mode of seeking information: Six out of 10 handouts recommended that students consult place-based sources such as the library shelves rather than the library catalog, online resources or scholarly journals. Of those that did direct students to use scholarly research databases such as JSTOR or EBSCO, only 14% specified which database to use out of the hundreds typically available. Furthermore, only 13% even recommended consulting a librarian for research guidance.

Handouts also fell short in other areas important to the learning process. They rarely discussed plagiarism, and those that did focused more on the disciplinary process than how to avoid it. There were also very few handouts that provided specific information about contacting the instructor with questions about the assignment, even though students have reported that personal interactions with their professors provide the most useful guidance for the process.

Expectations for the final work product from most assignments also failed to meet modern information literacy standards. While the digital age has seen 'seismic changes' in how information is created and disseminated, academic assignments just aren't catching up. Head and Eisenberg found that 83% of the handouts they reviewed simply asked for the standard research paper. Very few required students to present information in alternative formats, such as multimedia or oral presentations. Although the standard format prepares students well for other undergraduate courses, it fails to prepare them for the business presentations and other real-world research applications that the majority of students will confront in their careers.

Project Information Literacy Figure 5

From Assigning Inquiry: How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today's College Students, page 15.

In general, the researchers' findings were consistent across school types. As the figure above indicates, professors were likely to suggest the same resources whether they taught at 4-year or 2-year institutions. However, instructors at 4-year universities did tend to recommend a wider range of sources, which is likely due to the fact that these institutions have larger budgets and more resources available. Another notable difference between the two institution types was the fact that almost twice as many professors from 4-year schools (15%) recommended consulting a librarian than at 2-year schools (8%).

There was also little variation when researchers broke down their analysis by difference. The main difference they discovered was that handouts from the arts and humanities are most likely to suggest a diverse range of sources, combining course readings, primary sources, the Internet and library resources. The report notes that this also makes intuitive sense, since the humanities use the library much like the sciences rely on the laboratory. Still, only 27% of humanities handouts guided students to the full range of resources.

Students and Instructor

Teaching Students to Learn

The researchers conclude by offering recommendations for improving the quality of research assignment handouts. They point out that most undergraduates lack a 'seminal understanding' about the process of conducting research, and that professors need to provide a better situational and information-gathering context for their assignments.

Situational context offers students an explanation of why they're completing the assignment. By 'peeling back the layers of the knowledge production process,' students can better understand what pedagogical research means and how to perform better as academics and researchers. Only 16% of the handouts in this study discussed what research means in the context of the course of the assignment. Instructors seem to assume that students already have the requisite understanding, when in fact it's the professor's role to provide that information.

Information-gathering context provides students with the practical tools they need to become effective researchers. Faculty need to direct students to a broad range of specific resources. While specificity helps students learn what the best and most effective tools are within in each type of resource, variety helps students learn to teach themselves. As they learn the breadth of what's available, they can get better at identifying, evaluating and utilizing the best resources for each project.

Acknowledging that these changes may require a great deal of time and energy to implement, the report offers faculty one final suggestion: Librarians are research experts. Utilize them for 'help, ideas and inspiration.'

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