Nurturing Our Students’ Research Skills
Guest Article By Susan Lowman-Thomas
Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University
Cultivating curiosity is a great way to improve research skills. If students approach the world with interest, a sense of wonder, and a strong drive to learn more, they will be better researchers. They will see that, the more they learn, the more they realize how much they have yet to learn. Luckily, many of our students are lifelong learners. Being a lifelong learner means that the research process will be energized and sustainable.
Exploring a passion or interest jump starts students into the research process. Students who start their research by looking into topics in which they already have an interest (not necessarily a wide body of knowledge) are at an advantage. They already want to know more and are then researching because of desire, not just duty. Listing topics they like, mind- mapping, and brainstorming can help students find out what they might want to research. Forums are fine tools to help students collectively brainstorm on potential topics.
Once students identify a topic in which they are interested, they should begin asking questions. The standard reporter’s questions are good ones to get them started (who, what, where, when, why, and how are questions that can lead them in many directions). This can be done simultaneously with building a basic knowledge of the topic. They can (and will) use Google and even Wikipedia to find basic information on a topic. Open web sources may not be as desirable as research sources from the online library, but they can provide working knowledge for researchers starting their inquiry. Learning a little bit about a topic may lead to more questions, which may lead to more research, which may lead to more questions, and so on.
Good researchers don’t go into their research with their minds made up; sadly many of our students do. Research should not consist of an exploration of evidence to support a specific thesis statement; it should consist of different perspectives, unique approaches, and maybe even divergent findings about an issue. Instructors can help students at this phase by encouraging them to question the “pre-made” thesis statements they bring with them. Asking them to take opposing views and support them is one good way to do that. Asking them questions that require in-depth analysis of the assumptions underlying their assertions is another. Encouraging students to stay flexible, to remember that thesis statements often evolve, helps them become better researchers.
The Step-by-Step Procedure
Having one’s mind made up at the beginning of a research project is one poor research technique; another is procrastination. Our students sometimes get caught in the latter. The result is a hastily constructed research project, one without a solid foundation of curious inquiry, the focus of a specific, clear thesis, or the direction of a thoughtfully- built research plan. One class at APU (COLL300) helps students overcome procrastination by utilizing a step-by-step procedure, with weekly assignments. This approach means that students who are keeping up are actively engaged in an effective research process. They are unlikely to try to do all the semester’s work in the final week. Other classes can be presented in such a way, in a scaffolding of activities, to help ensure that students don’t leave everything until the last minute.
Include New Sources
Another research technique that trips students up is relying only upon their “favorite” sources like Google and Wikipedia. They might also include government agency or military branch sources. The sources to which students gravitate might in fact be fine sources (credible, objective, current, thorough, etc.) but they might only be providing part of the information the student needs for good research. For “the rest of the story,” students need to be encouraged to use the many resources available to them in the online library. Students who are led to the course guides built by the library staff have a head start in exploring those resources, as the guides provide leads to resources that are particularly applicable to a specific topic.
Other tools for helping students get out of their comfort zones as far as research sources include requiring a specific number of peer-reviewed sources. The APUS library has many options for finding peer-reviewed sources, including databases geared toward individual disciplines. Annotated bibliographies can help students branch out, especially if they are required to use a specific mix of sources. The annotations provide students a chance to explore and assess different sources and help the instructor see if students are moving beyond Google and Wikipedia.
Organize Source Materials
Failure to organize source materials plagues many students. It creates problems in the construction of a research paper and in the critical process of citing sources. Instructors can help students with techniques to organize their source materials at the beginning of the semester. One technique that works very well is to encourage students to get the complete citation information for every source they think they might use. They should also learn to keep track of page numbers, so they know precisely from which page each passage comes.
Taking notes skillfully can make or break the research process. A fine technique that instructors can share with students is to take notes in a two-column format. One column has the direct quote, paraphrase, and summary of the information from the source (along with the citation information). The second column has the student’s responses to that information. This might include the student’s ponderings, questions, points of contention, or connections with other sources. In the research process, students can then work confidently, knowing that the information in the second column is their own work, while the information in the first column is not and therefore must be cited.
Looking at both good research and poor research practices can be a simple way to assess the effectiveness of a class and an instructional approach. Such examination can help students become more curious, engaged, enthusiastic, systematic, and thorough. It can help ensure that students’ research efforts result in high quality results that reflect well on both student and instructor.
About the Author
Susan Lowman-Thomas is a full-time faculty member at American Public University, having taught here since 2009. She taught at Boise State University, owned her own training and consulting business, and worked as a human resource director for private and public employers. Susan loves to exercise and seek adventures with her golden retriever and her grown daughter. Reading and writing non-fiction and poetry delight her.