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How do I improve my students' research skills?

A library guide highlighting common pitfalls in student research & how instructors can help overcome them

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Improving Student Research

The following tips for instructors are designed to help students succeed in research assignments. The tips are based on the results of a summative report conducted by Project Information Literacy (PIL), a national research project that examines undergraduate research practices and assignment design and the University of Chicago Libraries' 2014 Survey of BA thesis writers.

Define research

76% of students surveyed in Project Information Literacy found it important to “find answers I can insert into my paper to prove I’ve done the research” when completing research projects This means that many students see course-related research as being “answer-driven,” rather than an iterative process of investigation and inquiry (33). The importance of understanding the "process of research" was reiterated in University of Chicago's survey. Students who understood research's cyclical nature were more productive, savvy researchers. To learn more about how to define research for students, visit the Defining & Evaluating Research page of this guide.

Explain how an assignment will be evaluated

PIL found that even though many students consider themselves proficient at finding information, they struggle to determine the nature and scope of a research assignment and what is required of them (36). Clear assignment instructions and evaluation rubrics clarify research assignments to help students understand the scope and nature of your expectations. To learn more about how to create research evaluation rubrics, visit the Defining & Evaluating Research page in this guide.

Scaffold the assignment into manageable parts

College students struggle with developing a research routine. Simply getting started--taking the first step--was the most difficult for more than 8 out of 10 survey respondents in PIL (28). BA theses writers agreed with this sentiment, stating that they struggled with time management and starting their project. Breaking a complex research assignment into smaller, more manageable parts gives the student the opportunity to focus on and master parts of the research process that seem insurmountable. Learn ways to scaffold assignments on the Preventing Plagiarism page of this guide.

Encourage your student to consult with a librarian

Half of BA survey respondents report using library reference services (51%), but less than one-third met with a subject librarian (27%). Subject librarians are experts in crafting and honing a thesis, searching for and locating specialized sources, and correctly attributing sources. Scheduling a consultation can greatly improve a students' research performance. Notably, survey respondents reported wishing that they would have met with a librarian sooner and more often in reflecting on their BA experience.

Direct your student to consult a variety of resources

PIL found six out of 10 research assignment handouts recommend that students consult library shelves more than online library sources and the web. UChicago BA theses writers, however, report using a variety of sources, including journals, archives, and maps.This means that students’ systems for finding and using information work outside the academy. By promoting a variety of information sources instructors can acknowledge and engage with the contemporary information economy while introducing traditional resources.

Collaborate with a librarian

An effective research assignment introduces students to new information sources while helping students develop and hone a research strategy. Librarians are experts at guiding students towards effective research processes to adapt as information landscapes change and grow. To learn more about how a librarian can help develop and refine your research assignments, contact the Library.

Library Services for Instructors

Library staff can customize instructional services to meet the learning goals of your research assignment and course. These services connect students to the most appropriate research materials and promote the development of valuable research skills.

Library instructional services include: