When I create an assignment, I intend the information I include about research requirements to suggest starting points and to encourage exploration. Instead, students probably use that information to determine the bare minimum required, doing only the research described instead of jumping off into deeper exploration.
Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg (2010) examined “How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students,” finding that students use assignments less as a guide and more as a road map. If the assignment handout calls for three sources, students use only three sources. Directed by the assignment handout to use at least two books and an online site, students meet the requirement and find little or no more.
In an earlier study, Head and Eisenberg (2009) reported that “Almost every student in the sample turned to course readings—not Google—first for course-related research assignments. Likewise, Google and Wikipedia were the go-to sites for everyday life research for nearly every respondent” (3).
I’m left with a conundrum: I want students to look beyond the course textbooks, Google, and Wikipedia, but I don’t want to prescribe the kinds and number of resources they should consult. My ultimate goal is to teach students how to thoroughly research a topic on their own, choosing the best tools to use and gathering relevant sources for their research projects.
I designed the following activity to kick off students’ research. In it, I ask students to evaluate the available research tools and then plan how to use those tools to conduct their research project.
The activity below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. I took the six kinds of research tools from a list from the course textbook, Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication (12th edition). You can easily customize the activity for your class by using the list of resources from your own textbook. Any textbook that covers writing research projects will include a similar list.
I’ll supplement this activity with links to some specific resources from the campus library, such as these Research Guides for Various Subject Areas. I will also suggest that students consult a librarian for help.
I think my assignment meets my goal. It encourages students to research beyond the familiar sources like their textbook and Google. At the same time, it guides students toward easily accessible resources without telling them exactly what to do. Next week, I will share a follow-up activity that asks students to report on the specific resources they have discovered.
Do you have an activity to share that helps students engage in deeper exploration when they conduct a research project? I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about it by leaving a comment below.
Photo credit: All She’s Armed With Is Research. by Markus Binzegger on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.