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Teaching Research to Upper-Level Students: Student Perspective

Research Goals for Upper Level Students

Students conducting research in upper-level courses are developing familiarity with the conventions and shape of the conversation within the discipline. They should be able to identify key research tools, locate high quality sources, articulate salient elements of research within their discipline, and use sources effectively as they enter the scholarly conversation.

Students are fully capable of developing a sense of how scholarly research is reported and how to construct a good research project. There are a few points in the process that might especially prove challenging:

  • Undergraduates must spend far more time than experts in gaining enough background knowledge to find a focus for a research project.
  • They also have understandable difficulty assessing the value of different sources, not being familiar with the prominent scholars in the field and its major publications. It's a good idea to scaffold assignments with multiple check points.
  • They think of documentation defensively, to prevent being charged with theft - as opposed to thinking of sources as expert witnesses brought in to lend support to an argument. Documentation is seen as a meaningless chore.

These skills need to be taught and reinforced. Don't assume students learned how to use the library in the FTS. What they learned was limited (usually to being able to find books on the shelves and search a database), may have been forgotten, or may not take into account recent changes in the Library.

Students tell us they learn by doing and they learn from the models provided by their professors. The most important predictor of students' success in finding, reading, and using sources is the number of times they engage in those activities.  The librarians are happy to discuss assignments you are designing and to brainstorm additional ideas and strategies.

How Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors See the Library & Undergraduate Research

In addition to the issues they faced as first-year students, upper class students engage in several common research behaviors. They tend to do the following things:

  • They often begin their research on Google in order to establish the parameters of a topic.
  • If they use a library database, they are most familiar with Academic Search Premier (a general database containing both scholarly and popular articles in all disciplines) rather than a subject-specific database. JSTOR and Google Scholar are also fairly familiar and popular.
  • They tend to return to whatever database worked for past projects, whether or not the content is appropriate for their discipline.
  • They are reluctant to persevere if searches don't immediately yield "perfect" results - and often change topics rather than change search strategies.
  • They often start with a thesis and try to find materials to support their argument, rather than reading existing literature on a topic and formulating a thesis from what they've read. 
  • They are often quick to dismiss arguments that don't support their thesis.
  • They have difficulty locating books on the library shelves.
  • Many are nervous about approaching the reference desk and using interlibrary loan.
  • They don't always think to mine cited works, and they rarely know how to track them down.
  • They struggle with integrating sources, especially figuring out how their own voice is a part of the conversation. "Literature review" is a new concept to most students.
  • They are very confident about their ability to do research online.
  • Their professors are the most important source of advice about which sources to use.
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