Are We Teaching Students How to Research?

When I started my college career I took introductory composition courses that taught me how to do “research.” I learned how to go to the library, how to search online databases for articles and books on my topic, how to cite sources using MLA format, and then how to write papers with a minimum number of citations/sources supporting the claims I made.

I think we are still teaching students how to do this, but I’m not sure it’s useful. As a scholar, I never go about research in religious studies by searching online databases, and the citation styles I use vary by context.

How do I do research, then? I ask peers what’s “essential reading” in a certain area, I ask who’s publishing recently on a certain topic, I sift through bibliographies in the books and articles recommended to me, and I read around in what looks to be relevant. The only time I use a library database is to look up and download an article I’ve already identified.

So the question is: are we teaching students skills that are not useful? What if, instead, we spent more time teaching students how to evaluate sources we readily shared with them (like we get from our peers), rather than focusing on how to physically find and cite find sources?

Of course, teaching students how to evaluate sources would draw us into ideological battles that would be more easily avoided if we merely focused on the numbers of sources cited rather than the contested value of various sources. We’d be talking about the value of some types of scholarship over others, the usefulness of some methods over others, and why they should avoid anything with “The Sacred” in the title.

Messy business—but isn’t that what research really involves?

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2 Responses to Are We Teaching Students How to Research?

  1. Sarah says:

    You have to do both. Getting students familiar with how to find peer-reviewed academic literature is part of getting them used to reading it. Maybe *you*, as a professional academic, don’t peruse JSTOR, but as an undergrad I absolutely pulled it up and searched for topics I was interested in just to see what the professional academics had to say about it.

    Evaluating sources should be an ongoing skill students developed implicitly and explicitly throughout college. In one of my classes, we talked about the historical critical approach that can be used to understand the issues in the Bible and other so-called sacred texts. I then asked the students to take that approach and apply it to the popular-at-the-time story about archaeologists finding a burial of a “gay caveman.” They freaked out at how egregious such sensationalizing language can be and learned that just because it comes from a trusted news source, a story can’t always be trusted.

  2. Kenneth MacKendrick says:

    Craig – thanks for this post. In my experience with first year classes, finding sources is a really serious issue. In fact, even at the graduate level I’m encountering students that don’t have a clue how the library catalogue works, how it organizes subjects, or even which electronic databases focus on material in their respective fields. I’ve started doing lectures on using a catalogue for my first year class and having my graduate students do in class presentations sharing what they know and what they’ve discovered (I’ve learned a lot myself!). Students today are comfortable using technology, but that doesn’t mean they know how it works. Finding sources – finding a book with a bibliography relevant to your research! – remains crucial and in many instances needs to taught. As scholars we take a great deal for granted about how logical or intuitive these storage systems are. I’ve have students give up on research topics because nothing turned up on Google Scholar (and in seconds I’ve turned up a dozen titles by search under subject instead of keyword). I’ve also had students unable to download a periodical from the catalogue even with a full citation. Familiarity with citation – and why it is important to the academy – is a rare thing for incoming students.

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