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Getting to the point of research.

After decades of working with students, I am still dismayed that generation after generation continue to misunderstand the task of research. Put quite simply, "research" for most students is mere compilation of facts rather than an exercise in problem-solving. The same difficulty probably exists in the general population, where people are really good at finding simple answers but struggle with deeper problem-solving. We could blame it on Google, which excels at answering fact-seeking questions but does little for more complex investigations.

In any case, more and more of today's students seem to think of research as discovery of existing information. Any notion of taking an issue for which there are no easy answers and wrestling it to some sort of a solution is alien and daunting to people who are used to just looking up what they need to know.

When I ask students, even up to the graduate level, why professors assign research projects, I get answers that range from "simple sadism" to "the professor wants me to study a topic in depth." Most commonly, students view a research project as the tiresome task of finding everything they can about something and then making an intelligent summary of it. No wonder the average "research" project seems like such a tedious exercise.

Ramping prospective researchers up to the level of actually doing what research is supposed to accomplish might seem like a simple matter of explaining what we want and holding students' feet to the fire when research is assigned. But, then, nothing is as simple as it seems.


The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education includes, as one of its threshold concepts, "Research as Inquiry." The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000) stated, "The information literate student defines and articulates the need for information" ( informationliteracycompetency) and referred to use of a thesis statement and questions. Yet it was not strong on the idea that the "information need" is related to inquiry or problem-solving. While one of the outcomes in the Standards is: "Recognizes that existing information can be combined with original thought, experimentation, and/or analysis to produce new information," it does not come with a statement of needed skills. The Framework's emphasis on inquiry is much stronger.

To put it concisely, we can view the finding of information as the goal, or we can conceptualize found information as a tool to address a problem or to discover something not yet properly known. Unfortunately, the concept of information as the goal seems to be dominant among most students. "The professor wants me to study up on this topic. I don't need much of a bibliography, because I found this book that explains it all." Read, synthesize, report on your reading, and you're done.

We can demand that students have a research question or thesis statement. Yet in a net-based culture carefully constructed for information retrieval, questions and thesis can easily turn into agendas for fact-finding only. Thus, you get questions like, "What is climate change?" or "What is the state of homelessness in America?" Corresponding thesis statements would be, "We must pay attention to climate change," or "Homelessness in America is a serious issue."

Nothing in such questions or statements goes beyond what you can find with a Google search. It's information as the goal, with no analysis required. To move to the next step--information as a tool to solve a problem--is often a challenging prospect for students. Beyond grasping the concepts bound up in the topic, the student has to figure out how to capture the essence of an issue arising from the topic.


If I want to find out who played Mal Reynolds in the late, lamented TV sci-fi drama Firefly, I can Google Firefly cast and learn the actor's name: Nathan Fillion. If you ask me what problem I'm trying to solve, I'd say, with great ease: "I want to know who played Mal Reynolds." That's about the lowest order of problem-solving you can pose. It demands no analysis, no controversy. Simple fact-finding is, well, simple.

Now let's ramp up to something like this professor's assignment: "Write a problem-based research paper on an Eighteenth Century continental author." Sure, you can Google Eighteenth Century continental author and get a list, for example, of German writers (en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Category: 18th-century_German_writers). However, moving beyond that, even when you've chosen an author (August Lafontaine, for example), is a challenge.

The problem with problems is that addressing them well can only happen when you know exactly and concisely what the problem is. Here are some options:

* What kinds of novels did August Lafontaine write? [Easily answered with a Wikipedia article that characterizes his works as "conservative moralizing sentimentality." Not viable as a problem statement.]

* What can we learn today from the novels of August Lafontaine? [Open-ended question capable of multiple answers and thus not capable of a single answer. Makes a woefully inadequate research question.]

* Why were August Lafontaine's novels so popular during his lifetime, given their conventional nature? [Now we are getting somewhere, since analysis is required.]

* How did the themes of August Lafontaine's novels support the political aims of the High Court of Prussia? [Good. Again requiring analysis.]

So we have four questions, one of them seeing research as finding existing information, one inadequate as a question, and two using found information as a tool to solve a problem.

Having worked with thousands of students who are struggling with identifying a problem, I often observe with sympathy the cognitive challenge that comes when you have to move from information as a goal to information as a tool. A decent problem statement can't be easily answered by looking up something. It calls for a real issue that can only be addressed when the researcher uses sound analysis to navigate through the options or conversations around the problem. It needs to be narrow enough to allow for depth and significant enough to have a literature around it.


There are detractors to problem-based research projects. Some say students lack the background knowledge and skills to make problem-solving anything more than lame busywork. Some see student research as an intricate game, played for the entertainment of professors and the despair of students, that teaches nothing of abiding value. Some argue that traditional research projects are anachronisms in an era of ubiquitous knowledge. All of these views miss the point.

I'm not saying that research projects can't end up becoming elaborate games. John Warner, for example, points out that writing development suffers when university assignments call for formulaic work. Speaking of students doing writing projects, he states: "My belief is that ... they see writing for school not as an occasion to communicate ideas, but instead to perform a kind of intelligence that we associate with being (or appearing to be) a good 'student'" (John Warner, "Why Can't My New Employees Write?" Inside Higher Ed, June 29, 2016;

Such writing, I believe, comes from a mistaken notion that knowledge is a deposit to be explored academically by following the professor's rules, rather than being a tool to enable research and problem-solving. If we shift to the latter concept, we have what both educators and employers need--the ability to identify a problem, wrestle through the options, communicate significant ideas, and move to a conclusion or even a solution.

Knowledge in every discipline is not a static deposit but a product of inquiry. The information itself is not as important as how we use it to advance knowledge. If we are, indeed, preparing students for careers and life, their research projects need to reflect the means that disciplines use to advance knowledge. This, I believe, is directly transferrable to the way the workplace advances its own knowledge. The problem of new workers is more than their inability to write well. It is their inability to identify problems, create a clear problem statement, engage in research, and communicate the results clearly.

Thus, a good, problem-based research project is no game, not an artificial construction. It's a means to train students to become information-based critical thinkers and problem-solvers.


A research project is not about a topic (at least not in the sense that a Google search finds out about a topic). It's about the problem arising out of the topic. The key to research in academia is identifying that problem. Only when we have a clear statement of the issue at hand do we have any hope of making the project succeed.

How do we overcome the challenge of students having unclear goals, from topic selection to finished product? Here are some suggestions:

* The researcher has to resist jumping headlong into research. Most of us don't read instruction manuals or spend time planning for any reason. We just start in and make it up as we go along. For the researcher, an impulse like this becomes self-sabotage. No researcher should even proceed with a project until the problem has been identified properly.

* Problem statement formulation has to be rigorous. I know we hate that word, but fuzzy and mushy don't cut it when you are creating a research question or thesis statement. I urge my students to boil the problem down to one sentence (question or thesis) that is absolutely clear.

* Problem statements can't be multiple, or what I call the "shotgun approach." To say, "The following project will ... and will also ... will conclude with ... " is to create three research projects, destroying unity. If you have to aim at more than one target, you can't really aim at any target.

* Open-ended fishing expeditions don't make good problem statements. To ask, "What are the implications of the rise of ISIS?" is to admit that you don't really know what you're looking for. You're casting a hook into a pond of possible implications in the hope of catching something. Open-ended questions have to be closed. Here's an example: "What is the best way to counteract the rise of disturbed people who commit acts of terrorism in the belief that they are working for ISIS?"

* Problem statements have to both identify the problem and demand to know what is to be done. In that sense, problem statements are activist. You don't ask, "Why is homelessness such a big problem in our cities?" That only calls you to explain the nature of the problem. Instead, you ask something like, "What is the best way to support nonprofit organizations to alleviate the problem of homelessness in major cities?" Instead of asking, "What was the motivation of the government in Orwell's novel 1984?" (which offers nothing much to solve), ask, "To what extent can 1984 serve as a model to help us overcome the abuses of today's surveillance culture?"

Ultimately, the researcher has to be able to visualize the problem and the path toward a solution so clearly that all ambiguity is removed. I don't know how many times I have sat down with a student and asked, "Do you want to address this ... or that?" After a few guiding questions, the student says, "That's it. That's what I want to do." Invariably, this happens when the student can visualize the problem in a concise and straightforward way.


In our Google culture in which "research" is often merely finding things out, the much more significant skill is identifying a problem and tackling it. If research is inquiry, the foundation of inquiry is a good problem statement, simple and singular.

That is why higher-education student research projects remain highly relevant educationally, not as exercises in finding out but as models for problem-solving. To make this work, students need to get to the point, identify the issue, and state it succinctly. I know this is difficult, and those of us who teach need to be vigilant to ensure that students start with a solid foundation. I would rather spend time helping a student get to the point than teaching that same student how to optimize database searching, as important as that is.

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:Nov 1, 2016
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