Why do students have poor research skills?

21 Nov

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes a study suggesting that many students lack basic research skills.  I think most teachers and professors would probably think to themselves, “Well, duh”  when reading this. 

Alison J. Head, a co-principal investigator for the project, said the results suggest that today’s students struggle with a feeling of information overload…Ms. Head said the findings show that college students approach research as a hunt for the right answer instead of a process of evaluating different arguments and coming up with their own interpretation.

I suspect Ms. Head is correct in suggesting that students are “hunting” for the right answer.  So why are students approaching school work and research in this manner?  And what do we, as educators, do about it?


9 Responses to “Why do students have poor research skills?”

  1. Stuart Farrimond November 22, 2010 at 2:00 AM #

    I find that many of my students do start out with this ‘hunt for the right answer’ mentality. I teach post-16 students on a course that requires research.
    I suspect it is because students are taught how to answer exams (where often there is a right and a wrong way of answering). When faced with a seemingly endless amount of information to sift through and make sense of, many students turn to me and say ‘just tell me what to write!’
    I wonder whether this is an experience others have had?
    My successes have been with showing students examples of good research work (or published articles), giving them lots of opportunities to practice research skills, and giving them tips from what I would do as well as one-to-one help if possible.
    Thanks for bringing up an important issue 🙂

    • The Excited Neuron November 22, 2010 at 5:49 PM #


      Thanks for commenting. What examples of good research or published articles do you show them? And would you have any tips on the research skills high school teachers need to start cultivating in their students now prior to entering college?

      • Stuart Farrimond November 24, 2010 at 1:45 PM #

        I’ve tried several things with different groups. I’m not sure what age groups or abilities you guys teach but here’s what I’ve found as a good and simple exercise that I think high school students would have no problem with:
        – I ran an introductory session about the artificial sweetener debate (I posted a blog on this a while back: http://wp.me/p13o3i-2W ), initially getting them to ‘brainstorm’ what they knew – are they good or bad, what are they in, etc, etc. I then sent them off to find information on an artificial sweetener (e.g. aspartame) and gave them handouts to summarise the arguments against and for their use (getting them to write down the source of their information). Mid way through I ask them to come together and compare their findings. Encouraging them to discuss which were the more reliable sources of information and why. Split the group into two halves – each are going to research and formulate opposing arguments by trying to find authoritative research and trying to get evidence to refute any opposing research. Finish with a debate (spokesperson from each side) and then give them some closing tips and advice on research techniques.
        – Introducing students to scientific or research journals as soon as possible is useful. I found a useful exercise was to give them articles from one journal (I chose the British Medical Journal) and give them print outs of articles from different years (1800s right up to present – I used five or six fairly evenly spaced). Students may not be able to understand all the jargon – but get them to highlight or write down how the structure and formatting of the articles has changed over the decades. They can look at the writing style, use of diagrams, style of referencing. Ask them whether the changes are an improvement or not? This is a great grounding for students understanding the need for referencing in an article and about how to write up primary data. There’s plenty to talk about!
        Are they the sort of things that might be useful? There are other things that I do, but they are just what came to mind first. I perhaps put up some links to research papers that I use and perhaps some of the basic resources??

      • The Excited Neuron November 24, 2010 at 5:55 PM #


        Great ideas! Thanks so much for sharing. Anything else you think of regarding research, please send my way! I especially love the artificial sweetener idea…I’m thinking perhaps I can integrate this into our biochemistry/organic compounds unit next year.

  2. escher dax November 24, 2010 at 7:36 AM #

    I’m working on this right now with my juniors. It is exactly as you say: they don’t understand that research is more than answering a list of questions. We can discuss evaluating sources for days, and they still cling to the first answer they happen upon. They ‘know’ that Wikipedia is evil and full of wrong information, but they readily accept answers that they find on Ask.com or Yahoo Answers. At least Wikipedia gives sources for its information!

    • The Excited Neuron November 24, 2010 at 5:52 PM #

      Honestly, I think Wikipedia gets a bad rap! As you said, it does offer sources, and other people can edit or flag when something doesn’t seem quite right. As long as you keep in mind that things can be edited by anyone, and that you should check other sources, it really isn’t a bad place to go to for information.

    • Stuart Farrimond November 24, 2010 at 7:51 PM #

      I agree! Our college (like most) doesn’t allow Wikipedia as a reference source; but I use Wikipedia and I encourage the more able students to use it as a starting point for research – but they must check out & reference the primary sources.

  3. anatomypro November 24, 2010 at 6:46 PM #

    I’ve also found this to be true. I feel that there is a “get the work done” mentality. i hate to admit it, but i’ve often looked at a few, wanting to grab them by their cute little face and uttering “are you in there?!”
    We’ve come to a point where “everything” in their world is understood. The scientists of the past have discovered what some would find interesting, so the students have a hard time thinking of ways to build a approach to life that is open to exploration.
    “it’s safe here on the couch!” “I did my work, now i need a job.” Both of those statements are valid, however, it is the research into new areas that they lack. Don’t feel alone…stimulating thoughts into unfamiliar territory is a difficult job, but there will always be that “one” who will catch fire (hopefully not by the bunsen burner) and they will blaze trails in every direction.

    • Stuart Farrimond November 24, 2010 at 8:00 PM #

      Yeah, I guess we’re desparate for our students to develop mature ‘critical thinking’ skills and get them to challenge some of their accepted ‘facts’.
      I’ve just remembered another useful technique/lesson idea that worked well: I got the same piece of news from three sources: a news site, an editorial and the original research paper. Students had to look and see how the information had been modified (and simplified) from the original data for different audiences. It was a good way to get them thinking about what is ‘fact’ – especially when it comes to media reporting…

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