While some students make it to college with a good handle on how to manage the research process, others can be bewildered at learning to correctly identify and evaluate resources and baffled by citations. When too many students in your class aren’t ready to delve into research papers on their own, it may be time for teaching research basics.

This type of hurdle happens across disciplines, and some similar techniques for teaching research basics can be used regardless of whether your students are researching topics in education, literature or the sciences. How can you identify whether your students are struggling with their research skills? Keep an eye out for these common problems.

Getting started

In many cases, the biggest challenge for college students when it comes to a research project is just getting started. The longer they put off taking that first big step, the more they’ll have to accomplish as the project’s deadline nears. How can you get them to develop a narrow topic to focus on? Many students go about their research ideas looking for a correct answer, rather than exploring differing ideas on a topic and forming their own stance.

Convincing them out of looking for a “right answer” may in part be a matter of rephrasing how to choose a topic. Donald Ary, Lucy Cheser Jacobs, Asghar Razavieh and Christine K. Sorensen offered the following advice in their Introduction to Research in Education, 8e: “Systematic research begins with a research problem. … There is no way to do research until a problem is recognized, thought through, and articulated in a useful way.”

Though Ary et al. are speaking particularly of education course work, the idea can be applied elsewhere. Whether the problem is a practical issue that requires an invention, a policy change or a legal response, or it’s a bit more nebulous, as in a particularly vague bit of imagery in a poem or the interpretation of an abstract painting, identifying a topic as a “problem” rather than a question with a right or wrong answer could have students reframing the way they consider this part of research basics.

Validating resources

In Research Design Explained, 7e, Mark L. Mitchell and Janina M. Jolley noted that some research project ideas can be spurred on by identifying flaws in earlier research. Here are some of the questions students can ask not only to evaluate sources for their own research, but to come up with ideas for further research.

  • What are the study’s limitations? In what areas are there gaps in their evidence? Students can design an experiment or research process to fill the holes created in the base research.
  • What questions does the study leave unanswered? How could you design a research study to answer some of these additional problems?
  • Is the measure valid in the original study? Does it actually measure what it claims to measure? Or could the results lead to different conclusions than those offered?
  • Can you detect a bias in the study?
  • Could the study have involved participants who knew the hypothesis? Might they have knowingly steered the study to the researcher’s benefit?

These and more questions provided by Mitchell and Jolley can be of help to students in taking a critical perspective on the research they encounter. This is especially helpful in the age of information, when so many resources are available online and may be difficult to verify. The more students are able to critically think about their research, the better luck they will have at finding non-biased sources to confirm their hypotheses — or point them in a better direction.

What research basics do your students struggle with? How do you address those problem areas? Tell us in the comments.

Reference: Ary, Donald, Lucy Cheser Jacobs, Asghar Razavieh, and Christine K. Sorensen. 2010. Introduction to Research in Education, 8th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Mitchell, Mark L. and Janina M. Jolley. 2010. Research Design Explained, 7th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.