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Literature research by students … yet again

December 12, 2013 2 comments

Six months ago I wrote of my frustration at students inability to perform literature research.  My frustrations remain.  This post details my experiences this semester, looks at what worked and questions what still can be done to improve the quality of literature research undertaken by students.

I implemented a few changes this semester to the way I taught literature research skills.  These changes have been partially successful.  Further modifications are needed.  This semester I amended my lecture notes to stress:

  • The importance of background reading before starting the literature search
  • Using reference lists from the background reading to find the first articles
  • Using the reference lists from the first articles to find other articles
  • Using the “cited by” link in Google Scholar to find more recent articles which cite the articles you have already found
  • Finally, using specialist research search engines (Google Scholar, Ebsco, Proquest, Jstor, etc) to find articles not found using other methods

I had foreshadowed making these amendments in my post six months ago.  I added an additional change which I had not written about; requiring students to submit a 300 word reflection on what they had learned about research in undertaking the assignment.  These reflections helped me understand the issues from students’ perspectives better.

No googleThe first point that surprised me is that a number of students wrote a reflection on what they had learned from their research, not a reflection on what they had learned about research.  I don’t think the requirement was ambiguous but it indicates that students’ focus is on acquiring technical skills rather than generic skills.

A second point that disturbed me was that the library was subverting my actions.  They were teaching students that literature research was using a search engine to find articles.  The library training taught students how to use search engines more effectively and how to choose the appropriate search engine but it did not discuss the importance of background reading for both choosing search terms and for assessing relevance of search results.  Also, the library did not discuss how to follow the reference chain using the article’s reference list and the “cited by” link in Google Scholar.

The third issue that surprised me was that the material I presented on how to judge quality of publications (ie identifying scholarly articles and books) and the importance of primary sources over secondary sources was novel to most students.  My students were, generally, second year undergraduate students.  I would have expected this to be existing knowledge by second year but apparently it is not.

However, the most important thing I learned from the reflections is that most students did not know what literature research was, let alone how to conduct it.  Many of the reflections described the activities undertaken and many discussed how they had used Google (or similar search engines) and how they were unable to find many articles on the topic.  I still need to find a way to address this problem.  I don’t think this is problem of the students being too lazy to do research properly.  What the problem is, I think, is that students do not understand what is wrong with their method and they think their method is the correct way of doing literature research.  I don’t think they are hearing the message that their are better methods because they do not get that their method is wrong.  The first step in training them how to do literature research is to convince students that their existing research method is faulty.  Only when they have accepted that message will they become open to learning about better methods.

I am going to experiment on methods of how to communicate this message by developing some multimedia tools.  I will play with creating a video or use Powtoons to create an animation.  The multimedia tools may help deliver the message more effectively than I can achieve just by putting the message in my lectures.

To get that message through to students I need to undo years of unthinking inductivism; hopefully I can achieve this without students suffering the same tragic demise as Russell’s inductive turkey.

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