How to Improve Research Skills for Students (And Overcome These 5 Common Obstacles)

How to Improve Research Skills for Students (And Overcome These 5 Common Obstacles)

Here’s a common nightmare: you’ve just graded a ton of research papers and none of them resemble the kind of thought-provoking analysis you know your students are capable of. While this is clearly a worst-case scenario, let’s be honest: we’ve all had a similar experience. But why? You’re passionate about your course, your class is super engaged, and they’re enthusiastic about their research topics. So what’s getting in the way of your students’ research success?

Below are the top five obstacles we've heard from professors running research writing courses and tips for solving these challenges. These issues haven't changed with most courses transitioning online due to COVID-19. In some ways, they're even more of a problem in our new online reality -- which is why we feel so strongly about dealing with them.

Obstacle #1: Poor research time management

There’s no way around it – real research takes time. The best classes pitch it as a way to mimic academia, but academics spend years on their work, while most college classes last a semester. As professors, we want to teach the joy of immersing yourself in a subject you’re passionate about. But our students don’t always see it that way, and even if we give them weeks to research and write, many leave the assignment to the last minute, making it virtually impossible for them to read widely, think deeply, and undertake an investigation that’s important to them.

Use instructional scaffolding to teach research process

As teachers, you’re master lesson planners. You can’t always stop a student from doing their paper the night before, but you can scaffold your class so that you give students as much time as possible. Give them multiple weeks for research, and break it up into manageable steps. Have them keep a research log, where they summarize each source and jot down preliminary ideas in response to it, and try to make it so that their only homework is doing their own research. That way, they can have months to read, and by the time they’re ready to write their paper, they’ll be able to work with the articles that make the most sense for their project.

Obstacle #2: Misunderstanding the research process

Part of why time is an issue for students learning research skills is that they have a fundamental misunderstanding of what research is. Oftentimes they haven’t been taught that research is a process – an often time-consuming one – but it means reading tons of articles, making sure you understand their content, figuring out how these sources relate to each other, and then figuring out your position and how your ideas add something new to the conversation. So while the process can be rewarding and exciting, the sheer amount of time, energy, and skills required can be daunting. Students often get overwhelmed by the thought of spending all this time reading and not using a particular source – because they spent all that time reading it – and so they simply use the first five sources they find and plug them into their paper.

Discuss what research is on the first day

Scaffolding their research will help them understand the process, but so will your in-class conversations. Devote your first class to what research is -- what they thought it was before this class, the experiences they’ve had with it, etc.

Obstacle #3: Confirmation bias in research

Encyclopedia Britannica defines confirmation bias as “the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs,” or, in other words, the exact opposite of critical thinking and research. Students often have been trained, whether explicitly or not, that “writing research papers” means “finding quotes to support my position.” In reality, they should be organically moving through research, grappling with issues in the literature, and forwarding and countering things they’ve read. The student who starts her research thinking exactly the same thing at the end probably isn’t actively engaging in intellectual inquiry.

Include a lesson on confirmation bias

More scaffolding - are you sensing a pattern here? Good, because we believe in it! Use an entire class period to make sure your students a) truly understand what it is and b) why it's so important to be aware of it in their research process. Facing History and Ourselves has some great resources on the subject, including this lesson plan, which uses a video to introduce the concept, helps the class define confirmation bias, and explores how confirmation bias relates to click-bait. We've also found this New Yorker article to be helpful -- whether you use it to familiarize yourself or assign it to your students as homework and discuss it in class.

Obstacle #4: Lack of nuance

So, it’s clear that when we’re asking students to do research and write papers, we’re actually asking them to do very complex work. Before college, they’re often asked to report on things to make sure they understand the concepts being discussed – write a paper that summarizes what you read. But a true paper needs to have a point of view – you can’t just tell me what this is about, you need to tell me what you think about it. Another issue is the idea that their paper needs to “prove” something – it generally leads to an uninteresting, full-of-confirmation-bias essay. And coming up with a topic is easy enough, but a research question needs to be specific and have stakes – i.e., it needs to add to the larger scholarly conversation around a topic. But once they have an informed opinion, there’s a common mindset of not being able to understand or critically engage with topics they might disagree with. Instead of taking a critical lens to an argument, they’ll often see it as binary, and not engage with the issue at all. I.e., if they’re still thinking: gun control is good or gun control is bad, they’re missing the point.

Revisit the purpose of research and critical questions answered

Dig into the idea of “proving” something. Is that really the point of your research? Or is it to ask questions and add onto what others have said before you? (Yes, we know -- scaffolding again. But it's true! Organically incorporating all of these ideas into your class time is the way to make them stick.) Also: teach students how to come up with good research questions. Talk about the need for specificity and stakes, and how it needs to add something to the conversation. A good way of doing this could be to use question mapping – on the whiteboard, or through a web app like Beagle Learning.

Obstacle #5: Gaps in information literacy

Say all the hard work of truly understanding that research is a process has happened. Excellent! But students are often unaware that they’re not taking a critical lens to their sources. And in the world of sources, not all are created equal. Some may have a political slant, some may use information that hasn't been fact checked, and some may be straight up propaganda. It's important for students to arm themselves with a tool that allows them to make sure the information they're using in their research is as factual and reliable as possible.

Use the CRAAP Test! (And other library sources)

As you know, there's a lot of CRAAP on the internet. That's why the acronym -- Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose -- exists. It's a tool for evaluating sources. Help your students explore your school’s library database. Explain what an academically peer-reviewed article is, and do the CRAAP test together on a bunch of sources. Help them to understand where their information is coming from, what makes a source reliable, and when it might be appropriate to use a source that has some sort of bias, depending on their own investigation – as long as they acknowledge it and make it clear in their writing. Many college libraries have great workshops and lessons devoted to helping students evaluate sources for credibility -- be sure to check out your library's website or talk to a librarian!

Teaching students how to research effectively is no small task

But with these solutions to some common research challenges, we hope you feel more confident in tackling these obstacles -- and in the fact that the persistent nightmare of a stack of uninspired research papers won't be anywhere near your desk again. If you use any of these tips, please send us feedback! We would love to feature your experience and share it with the Beagle community.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash