A wrinkle in teaching students about research context

This semester was my third time teaching my 8-week credit-bearing course through the “contextual nature of research” lens. As anyone who’s spent any time teaching knows, every group of students is different, not just in personality and levels of engagement, but also in the sticking points they encounter in their learning. There are always new wrinkles and the group of students I worked with this time encountered one that I hadn’t seen before. I thought it might be worth spending some time thinking through it.

First, let me say that I’m still really enjoying teaching information literacy through a contextual lens. My students this semester were overall maybe a bit less engaged than in the last two classes I taught but even still they seemed to have a lot of interest and enthusiasm for learning about the importance of context to the research process. Finding out that their searches for information on topics like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and starting their own business counted as research as much as the papers they were writing for their classes seemed to really inspire them.  Or at least make them feel less bored than they would have otherwise, as one student admitted to me in some feedback I asked for as part of a course quiz/survey.

Some of the confusion students experienced about research contexts was similar to what I’ve seen before in at least one of my classes: once they knew that there were different research contexts (academic, creative, personal, professional, scholarly, and scientific), they wanted to know what the specific rules were for each one. They were particularly frustrated that sometimes the different contexts can overlap. I did add some information to the course readings and activities that were aimed at helping students get more comfortable with the idea that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to research—only conventions. But I think students have been too well-trained by an educational system that teaches them to believe in “right answers” to be satisfied with this idea. It’s going to take time for them to develop in their thinking enough to understand that not every situation comes with rules or a right answer. And frankly, my course doesn’t have enough time to get them over that particular threshold of understanding, though I wish it did.

So students’ confusion over and frustration with the lack of set rules wasn’t surprising because I’ve seen that before. But what did surprise me was a particular misunderstanding that I saw from several students in the course where when I asked them to name the context of their research, they seemed to believe that the context was determined by the topic they were researching or the types of sources they were using rather than the purpose of the research.

Thinking back, this may not have been as new as it seemed at first. The annotated bibliography project I use comes with a final reflection piece at the end of the course in which students are, in part, asked to name the context of their research for this assignment and explain how this context affected their choice of sources and how they searched. The answer I expected to get the first time I asked students this question was “academic” because their annotated bibliographies clearly represented a form of research they had undertaken for the purpose of meeting an academic requirement. However, many students instead identified the context as “personal research.” The reason they did this, it seemed, was because I had let them choose topics based on their personal (rather than academic) curiosity.

This inconsistency between my expectations and students’ responses surprised me at first (and maybe made me feel a little dismayed) but I felt heartened when I realized that these students were generally able to articulate how their understanding of the research context had affected their research process, including where they searched for information and what types of sources they used. In the end, this was exactly what I wanted. So the fact that their understanding of the context was different from mine didn’t seem to be a problem.

Now I wonder.

The students in my most recent class had a few activities where they were asked to name the context of their research as part of various discussion activities. The most common error I saw here was with professional research, which is a type of research undertaken in order to add to one’s professional knowledge or enhance a professional product. One student, for example, did some research on law enforcement officers’ use (and misuse) of body cams, which they claimed was an example of professional research. Which it certainly could be if the student was a law enforcement officer seeking to expand their professional knowledge. This didn’t seem to be the case. Instead, the student appeared to be researching body cams as part of an assignment for another class, which would have made the context an academic one rather than a professional one.

Another common error was for students to base their identification of the research context on the types of sources they were using rather than the purpose of the research. So if a student was doing personal research but used the library databases as part of their search for information, they would call the research academic or scholarly because they had mostly consulted academic or scholarly sources.

I talked before about how research contexts don’t come with hard and fast rules and the lines between different types of research can be blurry. So it may seem hypocritical now to call these errors. I think the important thing here has less to do with whether students are identifying the “correct” context and instead looking at how they come to this conclusion. In my mind, the context of the research is what informs the choice of topic and sources. In students’ minds, it seems to be the choice of topic and sources that determines the context. This seems backwards.

Then again, using the types of sources used as a clue to determine context can actually be a useful strategy. To determine what genre a piece of writing is, you might look for particular markers and conventions. The same could be true for research. If you are reflecting on research you already conducted, you might look back on the conventions you used to determine what type of research it was.

That still leaves out the purpose of the research, though. I really feel like the purpose of one’s research is the key to determining the context of that research.

Obviously, if students aren’t quite getting this, it’s likely because there is something missing in what or how I’m teaching them about these ideas. I’m going to have to go back and do some tinkering with my instructional materials to see if there are places where I can bridge that gap.

Even if I do, it’s likely that not every student will quite get this aspect of the contextual nature of research, at least not in the space of a short 8-week course. But as long as they understand the fundamental idea that context matters to the research process in some way, shape or form—which I think the students who showed errors in their thinking like the ones I’ve discussed here do—I’m pretty happy with that. Because that’s something they can carry with them far beyond their time in college.

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