Research Skills and the New Undergraduate

By Quarton, Barbara | Journal of Instructional Psychology, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Research Skills and the New Undergraduate


Quarton, Barbara, Journal of Instructional Psychology


Undergraduates are largely unaware of the myriad information resources available to them in their university library; thus, many students rely on publicly accessible Internet sites for their research needs. This practice severely undermines the academic research efforts of undergraduates. Contrary to student opinion, the Internet does not encompass all the world's knowledge, nor is it likely to do so in the future. Students must learn to use specialized research tools and to approach all information sources with a critical eye. This article describes teaching strategies faculty in any discipline can use to guide their undergraduate students through the basic library research necessary for writing a solid research paper.

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University libraries have outstanding information resources available to their student populations--subject encyclopedias, monographs, periodical literature, dissertations--and they have powerful tools for accessing these materials--online catalogs, subscription databases, interlibrary loan services--but many college students are either unaware of these resources or they do not know how to use them. Because few universities require an assessment of information literacy as a condition of graduation, many students move from course to course with only a marginal understanding about how to use research tools and how to evaluate resources. At graduation, students lacking these information literacy skills are ill prepared to function in a technological and information-rich environment.

For teaching faculty, information literacy is problematic. While it is widely agreed that information literacy is an essential component of higher education, it is unclear where it fits in the university curriculum: computer science classes, writing classes, or research methods courses. In fact, information literacy transcends course content and can be developed through course work in all disciplines. It is possible for individual faculty in any discipline to design assignments that provide the framework for a mastery of information literacy skills. This article identifies essential library resources for undergraduate students and, more important, presents teaching strategies that foster the acquisition of information literacy skills in the university classroom.

The Research Assignment

A typical undergraduate assignment involves choosing a topic in a discipline and writing a paper about it. Students are usually required to establish a premise and use literature from the field to corroborate their position. While this kind of assignment sounds straightforward, it is fraught with difficulties for undergraduates who lack information literacy skills: how does one focus a topic; how does one find literature pertaining to the topic; what is the "literature," and how does one distinguish it from other published materials?

Focusing the Topic

As beginning researchers, undergraduates usually do not know enough about specific disciplines to choose a focused avenue of research and to develop a manageable research question. There is, however, an important library tool that can be useful to students as they work to develop their research question: the subject encyclopedia. While an encyclopedia is a tertiary source (and therefore often overlooked by scholars), it is important to give it due respect as an excellent starting point for novices in the search for information. Unlike the general encyclopedia, the subject encyclopedia has longer articles that treat the topic in some depth while providing a context within the discipline. The articles present overviews, often including historical perspectives, theoretical frameworks, and issues of controversy, among other things, that help the new researcher find a foothold in the field. Of equal importance are the bibliographies that accompany the articles. These references direct the student to further reading, allowing them to explore the topic in a systematic way.

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