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Pulling Down Walls: Developing Students as Skilled Researchers

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William Badke

on 10 December 2015

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Transcript of Pulling Down Walls: Developing Students as Skilled Researchers

What is the nature of educational walls?

Professors teach about their subjects

Students learn about their professors' subjects

Professors send their students out to do research projects (badly and without a great deal of guidance).

Professors, without intending to, convey the impression that they are the true experts and their students cannot be expected to participate fully in their world.
It is the nature of expertise to create walls between experts and non-experts.

But are students really learning when we just pass our knowledge on to them?
The core of our argument is this:

Until our students are invited into our disciplines as participating partners with us, they remain on the other side of the wall, knowing about our subject matter but not being able to do our disciplines.
There are two definitions of “expertise”:

Knowing about
Knowing how
It is possible for students to learn about the discipline, but have little resulting ability to
do
the discipline.
Isn’t this a caricature?
Isn’t all good education a process
of both knowing about and knowing how?
Granted, students do actually engage in more than “knowing about.” But their direct involvement in
doing
their subjects varies.
A strong goal of most higher education is to have students develop the ability to handle information resources well so that they can make sense of the subject matter, solve problems and advance knowledge.

What we are talking about is the ability to do research.
We might well ask:

“What is the student’s ability to
do
the subject he/she is studying, that is,
to handle information and do research
like that done by disciplinary experts?”

And, if we ask the question, how do we assess student ability?
Now, here are some facts, based on extensive studies that have been done in recent years on the research and information handling abilities of undergraduate and graduate students:
The Facts:
Most students in higher education have weak, haphazard skills in using the information of the disciplines they are studying to do problem-solving.
Such students do not develop significantly better research skills over time, even at graduate level.
Most students struggle even to understand the expectations of their professors in assigning research projects to them.
Whether we are speaking of traditional academic or more praxis-orientated subjects, a high level of skill in not just
knowing
but
working with
the knowledge base is crucial in order to address, with wisdom, the main problems
.





This demands using information as
a
tool
to advance understanding and guide
action.




In essence, it constitutes the ability
to
do
the discipline, to do research which
requires critical thinking and
problem-solving skills.
Here is what Project Information Literacy found
(Mouse over controls below and activate):
How could this be?

Our students routinely submit problem orientated (research) projects to their professors, and many of these appear to be adequate at least.
But are we measuring the right elements in student research? Are we looking for key evidences of their ability to actually engage with the disciplines they are studying?
Key elements of good information handling / problem solving / research skills:
Ability to create a clearly stated goal that is a problem-based statement rather than only information gathering
Use of the best sources in citations
Ability to use evidence well, evaluate options, and argue a case
Overall evidence that the student understands the nature of the way problem solving / research is done in the discipline
My experience, in 30+ years of teaching and being a librarian in higher education:
Most students are baffled by their professor’s instructions in research assignments.
Most students feel that they are not given sufficient help to improve their projects. They are on their own.
Most students feel like outsiders to the rules and conventions of the research / problem solving to be done in the discipline.
Students are being provided with a wealth of knowledge, but are they being sufficiently
equipped to work with that knowledge to solve problems and advance understanding?

Is it then several weeks before students get feedback on those assignments from the professor?

We are putting those same students into vocations where knowing about is not nearly enough. They
have to be able to use what they know critically and practically.

Are we educating genuine practitioners?
A path forward: Helping students to become
skilled researchers

We need to get them deeply involved in working
with the information bases of our disciplines, doing problem-solving research in a context of regular professorial guidance and feedback
.





We need to invite our students into our disciplines by helping them to grasp, not just content, but method.
Let’s start with the core of the problem:

Your students, even if they have some background in your subject area, are strangers. They are hearing new vocabulary, discovering new authorities, navigating new methodologies.
Think of your discipline as a foreign culture, and the information that “informs” your discipline as the knowledge of your culture.






Put “knowing how” into the very foundation of your teaching rather than leaving it to a research assignment students are
sent out
to do.
Teaching “knowing how” requires enabling students to become skilled and wise handlers of the information resources of your discipline.

Knowing how means that your students will become researchers, thus
doing
the discipline rather than simply learning about it.
Here are some options


1.
Start with the power of autobiography
.

Help students to understand the guiding principles of your discipline by sharing own your history with and passion about it.

2.
Create a Roadmap to the Nature of the Discipline

History
Valued Texts
Major Approaches
Key Players
3.
Do Close Reading of Key Texts

Go through portions of key works with your students, looking, not merely for content but for method. Bring students into the world of the writers in your discipline. Focus on how writers present problem statements, use evidence, create arguments, and enlist sources.
4.
Create Faceted Research Assignments

Faceting (doing research assignments in stages) is not new, but it can be done with more of an eye to developing “knowing how.”
Instead of sending students
out
to do research projects, use
class time
to help students:
Learn how to create research problem statements
Optimize use of research tools and resources
Critique information resources
Develop research arguments


You can structure the submission of assignments in stages (faceting) so that students get significant feedback before they submit final papers.


Here’s a faceting

plan:
2. Students learn how to formulate research problems and then submit their own research problem (as a single question or thesis statement) and preliminary outline.
Feedback is once again as immediate as possible.
1. Students submit a preliminary working knowledge of the topic they are developing
and get quick feedback
from you, the professor. Focus on ensuring that the student grasps basic content but also has a topic that has a good hope of becoming a research project.
3. Students get instruction in the use of research tools and submit a preliminary bibliography that includes:
Which research tools were used.
What kinds of searches and search terms were used.
Resources found.


4. Students then submit a revised research problem, a updated outline that details arguments they intent to make, and their updated bibliography.
Feedback is provided as quickly as possible
.









5. When all preliminary work has been critiqued by the professor, students submit their final paper
. Keep your grading time as immediate as possible and go over commonly noted difficulties in class
.
The Key Elements for Success
Students learn method along with content
Students are enabled to practice the discipline under the professor’s direct guidance
Students receive frequent, quick feedback
Doing the discipline is not relegated to non-class time but is initiated in class
This can seem like a disruption of traditional
teaching practices.
Who is available to teach the use of research tools?
What about content that needs to be covered?
Content can be taught along with process:
Close reading of texts can introduce students to key thinking in the discipline
Practice with formulating research problems can be modeled by considering how important research issues are addressed in the disciplinary literature.
Development of research projects can involve students and faculty in class discussions of key areas of content
Teaching the use of research tools like catalogs and databases can be guided by reference librarians, who know these tools well.

There are good books for students on research method as well.

Your students need to be invited into your disciplines as practitioners rather than observers. It could make all the difference.
Is your lecture like a
video
about your foreign land – seeing it from a distance but not experiencing it personally?
Let me suggest an alternative approach
I define "research" more broadly
than some do.

Research is
the ability to identify a problem or issue and find a way
to address it, using information and evidence
. In that sense, research can be done in any subject area.

Research is, essentially,
problem-solving.
Are we measuring their ability, at least in some rudimentary way, to
do
the subject matter like the experts do it? They may have knowledge, but do they have disciplinary expertise (knowing how)?
Or are we leaving most of the "knowing how" to projects, done
outside
of class with little initial guidance provided?
Are we shaping the educational process to enable students to learn
how
as well as to learn
about
?
Feedback is provided as quickly as possible.
For further information on this topic, see:

William Badke, "From Broker to Strategist: Notes of a Traveler in the Strange Land of Information 2.0." Invited lecture, Information 2.0: Knowledge in the Digital Age. LaGuardia Community College (CUNY), Long Island, NY, March 19, 2010. http://acts.twu.ca/Library/LaGuardia.pdf


William Badke, Teaching Research Processes: The Faculty Role in the Development of Skilled Student Researchers. Oxford: Chandos Publishing; New York: Neal-Schuman, 2012.

William Badke, "Student Theological Research as an Invitation." Theological Librarianship 5, no.1 (2012): 30-42. https://journal.atla.com/ojs/index.php/theolib/article/view/200/507
and http://acts.twu.ca/Library/textbook.htm
The kind of education we are looking at goes beyond "knowing about" and teaches students how to learn patterns of critical thinking and problem solving that are characteristic of the disciplines we teach.
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