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.