Research Assignment RX

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all been there: you’ve handed out the research assignment. Your students have begun working on it. But there’s a snag—the material isn’t as easy to find or as abundant as you thought; your students are missing crucial context; the instructions are ambiguous on a key point; you hadn’t anticipated what would happen when students brought their assignment to a reference desk; the assignment isn’t as clearly integrated with the rest of the course as you intended; the special collection you recommended is closed this week…

…and the admirable learning goals you or your course head had envisioned remain off in the distance, beyond an abyss of restricted hours and missing items, past a mountain of extraneous documents.

Now what?

In a nutshell, you should talk to your students, talk to your librarian, and be flexible. Think of this as an opportunity to get an even deeper sense of your pedagogical objectives for this assignment, or even the course as a whole—not to mention an opportunity to add to your own research expertise.

Talk to your students: ideally, your assignment includes some low-stakes prep work that will give you a sense of how your students are doing (and if it doesn’t, your next research assignment definitely should!). But if you’re not getting the feedback you need, you can:

  • Offer to read an introductory paragraph or draft bibliography—a quick skim will tell you whether your students are on the right track and whether there’s any general advice you want to send to the whole class. (This will save you time in the long run: successful assignments are much easier to grade!)
  • Ask your students about intermediate stages in their research:
    • Who’s found 5 or more good sources?
    • What journals are they in? What press published them?
    • What databases have you had success with?
    • Has anyone talked to a librarian? Where? Was it helpful?
  • Distribute index cards in class and ask students to write at least one question they have about the research assignment. Make clear that the feedback is anonymous and that your goal is simply for everyone to have a rewarding experience with the assignment.

Talk to your librarian. The main misconception to dispel here is the idea that librarians are somehow bothered by research questions or requests for help. From the other side of the reference desk, I can assure you that there is no such thing as a boring research question. It’s extremely rewarding to share in a student’s moment of discovery, help work out a research strategy, or think through how your assignment can best align with your course’s learning goals.

Whom to approach? Well, each librarian has a particular area of expertise, but we’re all expert at referring you to the right person, so you can start with just about anyone. Contact your department’s liaison, amble up to a reference desk, email “Ask A Librarian,” call 495-2411, get out your semaphore flags…just keep in mind that carrier pigeons will need to present a Harvard ID at the door.

What to say? Here are some questions that might be helpful to ask:

  • Can you find out if my students have been coming to the reference desk? How do they seem to be approaching the assignment?
  • Do you have a moment to read this assignment and tell me how you think students are likely to go about completing it? Is there any additional information they will need? Are there any sources you would suggest?
  • What kinds of questions should my students be asking? What kind traps do you think they might fall into with this assignment? You might model for your students some questions to ask at the reference desk, or suggest what they can do to prepare for a library consultation.
  • The set of sources or special collection I had in mind isn’t working out: can you suggest some alternatives?
  • Is there anything I can clarify for you, or any material I can give you that would be helpful for reference desk staff to have on hand?
  • Is there anyone in particular I should put my students in touch with?
  • Would it be possible to customize my course’s Research Guide to match the structure of my assignment and the terms I’m using to describe it?

Be flexible and clarify, clarify, clarify. Where might it be ok to adjust your plan, and your expectations, in order to get a better and more pedagogically satisfying result? This is another way of asking the real question, which is, what do you want students to get out of this assignment?

First, you need to analyze your assignment to figure out where the snag is. Does it have to do with the materials themselves (you thought there would be way more reviews of the book than there actually are), the tools for accessing them (only six people at a time can be logged into the database you recommended), or the skills required to locate and use sources (your students assume everything is in JSTOR, they haven’t thought through the differences between a personal narrative and an analytical study). Even if everything is perfectly in place, don’t forget that each discipline does research differently: the go-to encyclopedia, citation format, or research scope and strategy that seems obvious and intuitive to you might be foreign territory for your students. Some suggestions:

  • Expand or narrow the scope. Talk to your students about appropriate regions, time periods, demographic categories, disciplinary lenses, library collections, alternate editions, etc.
  • Give them a hint. Offer specific examples and starting points. How many and what kind of sources do you want to see? Did you have a particular database in mind? Is it more important that the students discover their own sources or that they end up with the sources you had in mind? Can you list some good books they might use as a springboard? Recommend a reference work? Is there a particular library or call number they might go to?
  • Teach the skills. Your students may have done some research before; this does not mean that they have been taught to do research. At Harvard, library instruction occurs when a student chooses to attend an optional library workshop, happens to take a course that includes a library session, or gets help with a specific question at the reference desk. Which is to say there are students who never receive formal research instruction, and you are in a great position to do something about that. Take a few minutes in class to read a citation, analyze a table of contents, name and describe the disciplines relevant to your course, brainstorm search terms to use for a sample topic, or review how sources in your field are created and disseminated. Make sure to say the basic information aloud; the segue into nuanced discussion will happen naturally: This is from the journal Nature, which I can tell because the publication info includes a volume and issue number; that’s one of the major journals in the field, which means that…but this particular paper is from 1967, so my next step would be…
  • Make the problem part of the students’ learning experience. Invite students to reflect critically on what happened when they tried to track down material, and consider giving at least partial credit for such reflections. Was the material impossible to find or in a totally unexpected category? Why might that be? What assumptions does that reveal? Did you get swamped with material? What did wading through it teach you about how researchers in this field define their topics? What lines of inquiry do you think would be most fruitful for future researchers and why?

This post was written by Odile Harter.

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