How confident are college students in their research skills? And do their instructors perceive their skills in the same manner?

In our recent Engagement Insights survey of nearly 3,000 college students, we asked: “How good are your research skills?” Our results indicate that college students are quite confident. When asked, 52% rated their research skills as “Good,” and another 25% stated that their skills are “very good.” Another 22% ranked their skills as “fair.” Only 1% of our surveyed students considered their research skills to be “poor.”

However, when instructors were asked about their own confidence in students’ research skills, they told a different story. When asked “How confident are you in students’ research skills?,” the largest segment of our surveyed instructors, 44%, said they were “somewhat unconfident,” and 18% said they were “very unconfident.” However, approximately one-third (33%) said they were “somewhat confident,” and 5% were “very confident.”

On the other hand, instructors’ views on students’ own confidence closely reflected what students had to say. Of the instructors, 43% described their students as “somewhat confident,” and another 43% said that they thought their students felt “somewhat unconfident.” Only 11% felt that their students were “very unconfident,” and 4% said they believed students were “very confident.”

Clearly, there’s a gap in instructors’ and students’ perception of students’ research skills. For the most part, students believe they’re doing well, while the majority of instructors want to see their students’ skills improve.

So how can instructors help students build confidence as they conduct the research process— while also ensuring that their confidence is based on their application of sound research principles?

Below, we’ve presented five challenges and concerns that students frequently face when they’re researching. We’ve also provided some simple tips that students can follow to build their research confidence and competence in these areas.

Five common research concerns… and how students can approach them with more confidence

1. “So many sources, so many questions… where do I even start?”
If you’re like many people, you may be inclined to begin the process with your favorite search engine. Enter some interesting terms, click “Search”… et voilà, pages of information are at your fingertips! What can be simpler?

Though that strategy can be helpful when you’re trying to brainstorm some topics, your instructor probably wants you to rely on more academic resources when it comes time to do the actual research. However, you may not know initially where to find the types of sources that will best suit your topic and the assignment.

Tip for research reassurance: Ask a librarian!
Take a trip to your campus library, and ask the librarian to help you locate sources that would be considered scholarly. He or she is sure to be familiar with the types of databases, reference sources, and other publications that your instructor will find acceptable for and relevant to your assignment.

No time to visit the library just yet? Start at the library’s website. These sites often include resources such as subject guides, which list and link to your library’s holdings of books, journals, reference sources, literature reviews, and other sources relevant to your search. Typically, they’ll also offer research and writing tips, as well as citation guides. (Need help? They will also post contact information for the librarians!)

2. “I’ve searched and searched the library catalog and databases… but I’ve come up with far too few (or far too many) sources for my project.”
When you’re researching, there’s almost nothing more frustrating than conducting a search and coming up with zero results. On the other hand, if you enter your search terms into a database and find thousands of results, that’s not easy to deal with, either.

Tip for research reassurance: Refine your list of keywords.
If you’re having trouble finding what you need, some simple tips on how to search may get you started in the right direction.

In her book Research Strategies for a Digital Age, Fourth Edition, Bonnie Tensen recommends that you make a list of potential keywords. As you use these keywords, make notes on which ones produced relevant results, and which ones did not. Refine the list as you go. A thesaurus may also help you think of words that will work for your search. It’s also critical to check your spelling; if you misspell a word (especially a proper name), you’re far less likely to find what you need (Tensen, 27-28).

Do you have too many results? Refine your lists by making your key term more specific (e.g., “George Washington Carver inventions” instead of simply “George Washington Carver”). Also use the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT to assist you in finding the most relevant results. If you use AND (e.g., “poverty AND education”), you’ll find articles that contain both keywords. With OR, you’ll find articles that contain either of your keywords (“revolution OR rebellion”) . With NOT, you’ll exclude articles that don’t include a keyword that doesn’t actually relate to your search (e.g., “Peanuts NOT comics”).

3. “This source sounds interesting… but will my instructor accept it as a ‘scholarly’ reference?” 

Magazines, websites, and newspapers offer us a wealth of useful information. However, when you’re writing a research paper, the sources you use should, generally, be scholarly in nature. (Of course, there are exceptions; as an example, newspapers can be fantastic sources for a history paper!)

Tip for research reassurance: Evaluate what you’ve found with a critical eye.

Don’t take what you’ve found at face value, and certainly don’t assume that if it’s available, it must be accurate.

Look for clues to the nature of the publication. Who is the publisher, and why might they be publishing this material? How current is the publication (and does that matter to your work)? If you’re using a journal article, can you tell if it’s been peer reviewed by other experts in the field? (Many databases will allow you to filter results by “peer-reviewed journals.”)

Even if your instructor isn’t limiting your sources to scholarly ones, it’s still important to think critically about your information sources. You’ll want to ask questions like: Who is the author, and what are his or her credentials? Where do they get their information from? Do they have a particular point of view or bias?

For additional guidance, review our previous posts on thinking critically about what you’ve read online, evaluating online news articles, and evaluating a website’s appropriateness for scholarly research.

4. “This quote is fantastic… now, where did it come from?”
You’ve found a compelling statement from an expert in the field, or a piece of data that provides strong support for your thesis. The only problem? You don’t remember where you found it, or who said it, and you don’t want to run the risk of including the wrong citation (or no citation at all). So, you may be forced to make the difficult decision to leave the information out of your project.

Tip for research reassurance: Take thorough notes as you review your sources.

Whether you use note cards or a notebook, or you keep track of your sources through an online reference manager, it’s important to make note of all the important details related to your sources.

As you record this information, think about all you’ll need for the citation: authors’ full names; the complete title of the book, journal, and/or article; and the year in which the work was published. For books, you’ll need to note the publisher’s name, as well as the city in which the work was published. When using a journal, don’t forget to note the volume and issue number. For electronic sources, you’ll want to note the URL or digital object identifier (DOI), as well as the date you accessed the materials.

Also make note of the numbers of the pages where you found your relevant information. In addition, if you’re writing out a quote from the book, be sure to write down the quote exactly as it appears; furthermore, place quotation marks around the section, so that when you return to your notes, you’ll remember which thoughts came from the source, and which were your own thoughts on and analysis of it.

Another helpful tip: Don’t forget the power of the printer or photocopier! If you want to be certain that you have a direct quote at hand, make a copy of the pages that you need for your paper. On those pages, write down all the bibliographic information you’ll need (including as well as the page numbers if they aren’t clearly visible. (Important: your library may have restrictions regarding how many copies you can make or print. Refer to your library’s photocopying policies to learn more about guidelines, permissions, and copyright concerns, as well as any costs you may incur.)

For your own memory’s sake, make some brief notes about why you’ve consulted that source, and how it relates to your project.

This may seem like a lot to write down… but taking the time to do all this as you research will spare you from the frustrating process of trying to re-trace your steps.

5. “I really, really don’t want to be charged with plagiarism… have I done enough?”
If your instructor believes you’ve plagiarized intentionally or unintentionally, you may at minimum be required to redo the paper. However, depending on the situation, you may fail the assignment, fail the class, or even face expulsion. With such serious consequences, it pays to be scrupulous about checking and double-checking your work for unintentional plagiarism (and, of course, avoiding intentional plagiarism in the first place).

Tip for research reassurance: Be diligent about quoting material and citing sources accurately.

Give credit everywhere that credit is due. Have you used others’ thoughts and ideas in your paper? Quote your source material directly; or, summarize and paraphrase the ideas in a way that indicates their source. Have you included specific data points? Let your readers know the sources for those as well.

Furthermore, your paper should be far more than a collection of quoted material, organized in an outline. Demonstrate your critical thinking skills by including your own, original thoughts regarding these ideas.

Also be sure you’ve accurately cited all your sources throughout the paper. (Even if a research database auto-generates a citation, you’ll still want to make sure it’s complete.) To ensure you’re doing this step correctly, consult the style guide your instructor requires you to follow for the course.

It also pays to conduct a final review of your paper before sending it to your instructor. If you have access to a plagiarism checker like, submit your paper there. You’ll be able to see if, and where, any instances of plagiarism may appear.

For additional tips, review Questia’s nine-step writing guide, which offers a simple overview of the process of writing a research paper.


Reference: Tensen, Bonnie. 2013. Research Strategies for a Digital Age, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

What are your tips for boosting college students’ research confidence and competence? Share them in the comments.