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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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Using the Research Literature

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

As part of an assessment task in Business Risk Management, I ask my postgraduate students to find 6-10 peer-reviewed journal articles and incorporate them into their assignment.  Their assignment involves a case study of their choice with their analysis of how well their chosen organisation has handled the risk management issue that they have selected as the focus of their analysis.  Most students find that the hardest part of the assignment is finding the research literature.

Students tell me that they often have classes where they are expected to read an assigned research article but they do not really know how to select an appropriate article for their assignment  and when they do find articles, many students tend to simply summarise them rather than using the research literature to inform their thinking for their assignment.

Research articles can pertain to the methodology, the method or the particular organisation and its management of the chosen risk area.

Research can tell students how others have thought about:

  1. The theoretical lens through which a problem is viewed.  There are generally many ways to look at an issue, such as a feminist perspective or a Marxist perspective, as an example of monopoly power, or cultural hegemony … or whatever theoretical lens provides a way of approaching the problem.  This is the methodological approach to the assignment.
  2. The method used to tackle the problem.  Will students use a survey, interviews, observation, logic or some other method?  Undoubtedly there will be literature that provides guidance on that method.
  3. The actual problem at hand.  Maybe others have looked at the specific organisation, or for risk management students, the specific risk and perhaps how that risk has been handled in a similar context to the one being analysed.

I suggest to my students that brief do a brief concept map of their assignment outline and work out how the research literature sits within it.

It is important that students see the relevance of engaging with the research literature and that they do not see research as something you read at university but which has no real place in the business world.  In areas such as accounting, finance and business risk management, it is very easy for students to dismiss research in favour of the more technical or practical aspects of the discipline.

I feel that part of our role as educators is not simply to make sure students know how to use the library but to make sure they know why they should use the library.  We look at research from the perspective of researchers but most of our students will not become career researchers.  We have to be able to explain to our students not only why research matters while they are students but also, that it is has a role in their workplace.  It can be a challenge but unless we can explain why research in accounting is important to a practicing accountant, for instance, then we need to question the relevance of that aspect of our work.

 

Categories: Assessment, Research

Wikipedia: Spawn of the Devil?

September 25, 2011 1 comment

Let’s be honest … Students will look at Wikipedia.  Hopefully, it isn’t the only place they look but there are plenty of times when I couldn’t swear to that.

I have colleagues who will not accept anything from students that is from Wikipedia.  I respect their view but I don’t share it.  I once knew someone who didn’t own a television set because he did not want his children to be exposed to poor quality television programs.  My view is that children should be exposed to television.  It is ubiquitous in our society.  I see no point in pretending it doesn’t exist by ignoring it.  But our children need to learn to be selective and discriminating in their viewing and they will not learn that unless they are exposed to television and that includes making mistakes in their viewing selection; it is all part of the learning process.

My view of Wikipedia is similar.  There is no point in pretending it does not exist, in telling students not to look at it and then expecting that they will accept that.

In finance, Wikipedia covers some topics very well.  Others are not covered very well.  It can be a useful part of student learning to ask them to look at Wikipedia’s explanation of a topic and comment on it.  Can they discriminate between a good Wikipedia article and a poor one?  Do they consider the quality and range of the references, the description of the topic, the dugout of any definitions, the thoroughness of the explanation?

Early in the semester, I tell my students when a topic is well or badly covered by Wikipedia and I explain why.  Later in the semester, I ask the students to tell me what they think.  I have found that some students use Wikipedia as a textbook substitute, or combine it with the textbook and perhaps some other Internet sites.  It would be unrealistic for me to ignore that.

Learning does not only have to come through an assigned textbook.  I want my students to be able to look at a reference, assess and explain whether it is good, bad or mediocre; what is included or excluded from it; and the extent to which it has supported their learning, or failed them.  That does not only apply to sources such as Wikipedia.  I want them to be equally discriminating when reading their textbook.  Textbooks are not always of consistently high quality.  If students can become astute readers, they have taken an important step towards understanding.  You need to understand something to be able to effectively critique it.

If my students want to look at Wikipedia as part of their learning, if that works for them, then I would encourage it, but only if they read widely enough and gain a sufficient level of understanding to be able to become selective and discriminating.  And like children learning about appropriate television selection, I expect some errors in the process.

Categories: Research, Textbooks, Wikipedia