Colleagues and I have long since been aware of the lack of proper research and appropriate source use in our students’ EAP and academic essays. We decided to offer a one-hour workshop on researching in the library at our university, and enlisted the help of an expert – the library representative for our subject area.
We thought it was a great idea!
But students were not so impressed. And their work didn’t improve much, either.
After the session, students’ feedback centred on the following points:
- the session was quite like a lecture, but not very interactive or with any opportunities for them to try things out for themselves
- they were bored and confused by the explanation of possible search filters they could implement with Boolean search strings
- the MLA Bibliography they were introduced to “only gave them references but not the actual articles”
- that “there weren’t (m)any books on their topic”
- the searches of databases etc. don’t work “properly” at home.
So what do students new to library research really need to know?
- What an academic text is. (I recently asked MA-level students to bring in an academic journal article on our overall topic, and many of them turned up with texts from news sources like BBC, or from magazines like Time!)
- The fact that searching a database of academic texts is not like an internet search; i.e. you shouldn’t ask the catalogue your question (“Ok google, what are the differences between British and American spelling?”), but search for keywords or tags related to the topic.
- The fact that their specific topic may only be dealt with in a chapter within a book, which may not be searchable (unless the library has digitalised contents pages) and so they may need to search for more general terms.
- The difference between bibliographies and databases.
- The fact that many published sources are not available for free on the internet and so you can only access the full texts if your institution subscribes to that publication and you access it through their server. (Yes, this might mean, dear students, that you will actually have to physically go into the library!)
- The difference between reports of original (empirical) research and meta-studies or other summaries, and the importance of reading the primary work.
- The importance of using up-to-date sources, especially in areas where research and understandings have developed significantly in recent years.
- How to use keywords / tags, and articles’ abstracts, or skim-reading, to judge a source’s relevance and appropriateness for their work.
- That something is not a fact just because it has been published – most academic work is about stance!
And so, I’ve come to the conclusion that a one-hour session might not be the best way to introduce students to the academic research community. A quick introduction to the specific institution’s library is a good idea, but that this clearly needs to be further supported within our teaching.
Over to you!
What kinds of tasks and activities do you get your students to do to help them to develop and train their researching skills? Please leave your ideas and tips in the comments below!