Teaching Research

Understanding Research: Entering the Scholarly Community

When students undertake research in high school, it's frequently for the purpose of writing a report: students find and read what's been said on a topic (or, rather, a portion of what's been said) and report the results. Very rarely have they been invited to join the scholarly conversation, or to think of themselves as contributors or participants.

Building Research Skills

Students entering Dartmouth will need instruction in finding, evaluating, incorporating, and citing sources. Instructors should not assume that students can easily find a book in the stacks, or distinguish a reliable source from an unreliable one. Our students have markedly different research capabilities and experiences. Even if they did come to Dartmouth with more evolved research profiles, the particularities of our libraries, as well as the discipline-specific demands of academic work, could well prove daunting.

Complicating the matter further is that many incoming students don't understand how scholarship works. Our colleagues in the library tell us that students don't know what it means for a journal to be peer-reviewed. They don't distinguish between primary and secondary source materials. They don't understand "movements" in scholarly thinking.  In sum, first-year students know very little about the course material you are teaching -  they don't know the lay of the land, haven't a clue about the shape of the conversation, and aren't savvy regarding which scholars are superstars and which are mavericks in a particular field. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that students have trouble synthesizing the scholarship on a particular topic, and offering a position of their own. 

While our librarians are very helpful in teaching your students how to find and evaluate sources, relegating research instruction to one or two library sessions is not the best way to teach your students the scholarly process. A better strategy is to weave research instruction organically into your course. For instance, when you discuss a work in class, ask students to consider what scholarly question the writer is pursuing. As you discuss subsequent readings, take time to talk about the scholarly conversation that the writers are engaged in. Have your students read like scholars do, annotating their readings with questions and ideas that they'd like to pursue. Ask them to underline any allusions that the writer makes that they don't fully understand and to do a bit of research. Talk with them about how this exercise might enrich their understanding of the topic. Send them to the stacks to find more relevant texts. Better yet, go to the stacks with them. Share with them the excitement of discovering books on the shelves.

Moreover, you should demonstrate for your students how and when online sources are useful. Be willing to stop class discussion to look up, online, a fact or term that students aren't sure of. Have students form questions about the readings, and then use both Google and scholarly data bases to show them how to find and distinguish among sources, illustrating the difference between what's found via Google and what's found via an academic data base. Show students how to interrogate a website that they find on the internet in order to check for biases and inaccuracies.

You might also talk with students about Wikipedia, comparing a Wikipedia entry with an Encyclopedia Brittanica entry, and then again with a special subject encyclopedia entry. Note how each source might be useful, and in what ways. You could even ask students to create their own Wikipedia entry—a revealing exercise that will demonstrate not only your students' research habits (the materials and methods they most commonly use) but also the challenges and benefits of constructing knowledge communally.

Teaching Sources

Once you've taught your students how to find and evaluate sources, you'll want to spend some time talking with them about how to incorporate and cite them. Some first-year students have odd ideas about incorporating and citing sources—for instance, if you are paraphrasing rather than quoting an idea you don't need to cite it. Other students "patch-write" - that is, they paraphrase using language that is too close to the original text, sometimes to the point of plagiarizing. Our students need to respect others' intellectual property. They also need to understand that citing sources is an academic courtesy, in that it allows readers interested in your topic to follow up with additional reading. These principles are addressed in Sources and Citations at Dartmouth, the college's document for teaching students how and why citation is essential to scholarship.

While talking with students about citation principles is useful, you will want to go further and model for them how a source can be appropriately or inappropriately used in an argument. When quoting texts directly, students need to learn to use signal phrases that attribute the quoted material to a particular text or thinker.  They also need to learn how to comment on quoted material, demonstrating to the reader why the passage they've just quoted is important to their argument.

Finally, make sure that your standards for citation protocol are clear. Let your students know which format you prefer (MLA, APA, etc.). If your discipline requires students to frequently cite sources that are unusual (music, television shows, and so on), consider supplying students with the correct citation protocol as they are likely to have trouble finding good, consistent advice for citing online.

For a terrific (and free!) resource for your students that details various citation protocols, see Diana Hacker's Research and Documentation Online.