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A letter from a librarian to professors everywhere.

Dear Professors:

I am writing on behalf of those who will never tell you these things--your students. As you know, they are an intelligent bunch--gifted and the future of their nations. But they have a problem, and they fear that telling you about it will only make it worse.

The fact is, they're embarrassed. They somehow missed your lecture on the nature, purpose, and skills of the research process. OK, maybe you didn't give that lecture because you believe that they should have picked up research skills in an earlier course or via a class session with a librarian. Even if you haven't explicitly told your students that they should know how to do research projects by now, that's what they heard. To go back to you and admit that your assignment baffled them is just too humiliating. They're not sure how they failed so utterly to figure out what you expect from them in assigning that project, but they have indeed failed.

It's frustrating for you too. You just know that they are procrastinating to the last minute, finding shortcuts (if not plagiarizing outright)--and using shallow, sloppy thought processes that make a joke of your emphasis on critical thinking. Then you have to read the stuff they submit--with a growing sense of despair that makes you wonder why you even try to get your students to think and reason.


As a librarian who has worked with many, many students, I think I have some insights into the nature of student embarrassment concerning their research proficiency. I hesitate to share these with you, though, because professors value their autonomy and really resent having outsiders give them advice. So, think of me as an insider, as someone who shares your educational goals, as someone who's an ally for the good of your students and for their success. If I have something to offer that's going to make both your students and you happier, isn't it worth at least hearing me out?

Your students, believe it or not, are more likely to tell me about their struggles than admit to you that they don't grasp something you expect them to have already mastered--the ability to do research that meets the criteria of your assignment. I regularly hear tales of woe from them about their struggle to determine what it is, exactly, that you expect of them. While you believe your instructions are clear, your students don't, plain and simple.


You're probably wondering what's going on with your students. These insights from a librarian (me) may be helpful:

* Just because your students grew up with digital media does not mean that they have any real grasp of research.

Your students are great with superficial searching and rudimentary research. Between Google and Wikipedia, they can look up anything, or so they think. The problem comes when they need the long look for the deep problem that requires the kind of research that we can call "academic." Their search engine skills don't come near to addressing the kinds of extended critical thinking required in most research projects.

* They believe research to be compilation: Look up the topic and report what you find.

While you think it's obvious that a research project is supposed to be problem-based, most of your students are used to just reporting on a topic. They believe the purpose of research is to study up on something in greater depth than you can cover in class, not to address an issue.

* Google is their homepage, their library.

When you ask students to use only academic sources, they are confused. Google does a terrible job of discerning what is academic and what is not, yet Google has long been their go-to place for information retrieval. Today's students have little sense of the power of academic online catalogs and databases to reveal exactly the resources you expect them to use in their projects.

* Today's students don't understand the landscape of academic literature.

When books and journal articles identified in databases look so much like Google search results, they all become "websites." Most academics think that it should be obvious that a book is essentially different from a journal article, and a journal article is not at all like a website. To students, it's not obvious at all. They don't know much about the processes that produced each type of literature, including the amount of research required to create it and the extent to which the resulting product is academically reviewed.

* Students have few criteria to evaluate what they find. They will tell you that they evaluate their sources, but they won't be able to give you any objective means that they use. In general, judgments about visual quality of a website or existence of a bibliography stand in place of more reliable measures.


While many professors are tempted to give up on the research essay as an assignment, it still has superb educational value, potentially fostering critical thinking and problem-solving with information. But chances are, no matter how clear you think your instructions are, your students will too frequently be unable to make sense of exactly what you want from them. The reason for this is simply that they lack a basic understanding of the purpose, goals, and procedures of doing research. Such things are not mastered through a single session with a librarian or even some direct discussion in class about what the research assignment requires.

I believe a rethink is required. What do you want your students to gain educationally from a research project? At the most basic level, you want them to go deeper into something, to explore it at a more than superficial level. You want them to exercise their critical thinking. You hope they will interact with the best scholarship on the topic. And, if at all possible, you want them to do problem-based research rather than merely compiling data.

Is a research project intended to demonstrate student attainment (summative) or to develop research ability (formative)? If the former, you are assuming that students, with all their technological skills and creativity, have become seasoned researchers who only need to show you what they can do. The problem with this assumption is we now know, via a growing number of studies, that the average student in higher education lacks significant research skills. Thus, simply sending your students out to do a project and then grading the product doesn't help them learn how to do research.

You'll do much better with a formative approach that monitors student activity in a project all along the way and provides useful guidance to help them ramp up their work. Thus, a planned pattern of formative assessment is crucial. This means that students need to have a firm understanding of the assignment and receive clear corrective grading in stages all along the way.


Here are things your students likely don't understand about your research assignments:

* What its purpose is. To learn more about a topic? To explore an issue? To solve a problem?

* What you mean by your call for critical thinking

* The nature of the informational sources they are supposed to use

* What their project should look like in its final form

You can make you purpose clearer: "The goal of this research project is not to have you compile facts from your sources but to create a clear research question or thesis that turns the project into something that addresses a problem or deals with an issue."

Provide examples of questions that work and questions that don't.

* Just Compilation: "What is happening to the Arctic as the result of global warming?"

* Better: "What must be done to help the Inuit people adapt to climate change?" Or, "Are the polar bears of the Arctic actually endangered due to climate change?"

Students should understand that critical thinking is equivalent to problem-solving. If you have a good problem, as stated in a research question or thesis, critical thinking involves evaluating the evidence in order to work through the problem toward a solution.

You can spend time explaining the types of information sources most admired in your discipline. Help students grasp the differences among books, scholarly articles, trade articles, academic websites, and other types of sources. Spend time doing some close reading of good information resources in your field, explaining to students how scholars address problems, marshal evidence, and make conclusions.

Provide sample papers that show not only layout, but also preferred ways of presenting data and evidence. Give students clear guidance as to your expectations.


The more you provide guidance along the way, the more likely it is that students will improve their abilities and deliver a great product at the end. The fact is, many of your students don't bother reading your comments. Why should they, when doing so is depressing and doesn't contribute anything to improving their grade?

A mentoring approach is much more likely to produce students who actually grow in their research ability. You need to break down projects into components that you can assess along the way. If you are guiding students by grading each step of their assignment as a separate submission, your comments become highly relevant. Students know they have to pay attention to what you are telling them in order to do well on the next segment.

Focus your grading on their processes and skills, pointing out better ways to do things and not giving a green light to go on to the next component until a basic level of competence has been achieved for what they've already submitted. Amazingly, students will then actually read your comments and act on them.


Are you a disseminator of information? To some extent. Are you a shaper of minds? I hope so. Do you want to help your students become critical practitioners of the subject matter they are studying? That may be a bit of a stretch. Your students can hopefully pass the final exam, but do they know how to think and research like practitioners in your field?

Higher education is on the move. Lectures are being disparaged and active learning promoted. You could see this as a fad, but it doesn't change the fact that the way we acquire information has been altered dramatically by the internet.

So what do you have to offer as a professor? It's your expertise, your amazing ability to grapple intelligently with the subject matter, to solve disciplinary problems critically, and to figure out the lay of the land. You are uniquely suited to develop, through a mentoring process, significant research abilities in your students, thereby enabling them to become more than content absorbers and instead to develop into practitioners. This is the direction higher education is poised to take.


While librarians may be marginal in your life, they are on the front lines in all of this. They have long understood the gaps in the ability of students to handle information well and do effective research. They see the results of research assignments that create more bafflement than insight, and they have great ideas for shaping student researchers.

Higher education for the future will become much more collaborative. Courses will need to be designed for optimal learning far beyond lecture preparation. You, the professor, will still take the lead, because it's your subject matter. But opening the doors to librarians is going to take students into new realms of research ability and critical disciplinary wisdom.

My message to you professors is not intended as an intrusion onto your turf. We have the same goal--to help students to be the best they can be in both learning about and practicing disciplinary knowledge. Process is as important as content if education is to mature to meet the information age.

As your first step, sit down and talk with your librarians. They can confirm what I'm saying. Who knows? This might be the start of a beautiful collaboration.

[This letter to professors probably won't be read by professors unless you, the librarian readers of Online Searcher, share it with them. So I urge you to grab an electronic copy of this column (you should be able to find it on the EBSCO, LexisNexis, and ProQuest platforms, as well as through, and send it to your faculty. It could jump-start a productive relationship.--Ed.]

William Badke

Trinity Western University

William Badke ( is associate librarian at Trinity Western University and the author of Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog, Fifth Edition (, 2014).

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Title Annotation:infolit land
Author:Badke, William
Publication:Online Searcher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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