Teaching the contextual nature of research: lessons learned

Last week, I reflected on some of the successes I experienced while teaching my first information literacy course focused on the contextual nature of research. In this course, I based units on different types of research (academic/scholarly, personal, professional, creative, scientific) and asked students to produce both examples of academic/scholarly work and another type of research of their choice. Overall, the course really did go well but there were definitely some difficulties too, both expected and not.

First, I was surprised and pleased that the students in this class had an easier time grasping what creative research is than students in past courses where I’ve brought up this idea. In the past, when I talk to students about creative research, they express confusion. They want to know: isn’t all research creative? And when I tell them that, yes, all types of research can be creative but not all research is creative research, it doesn’t always quite sink in. To be fair, the course is short and back then I wasn’t spending quite as much time explaining the different types of research to students—only telling them that there were, in fact, different types.

The students in this course really seemed to get creative research and for their second project a few of them even submitted examples of creative research products (including drawings they’d made, photos they’d taken, and poems they’d written) with some great reflections on the role research played in these projects. I was very happy!

But there was still one type of research that students didn’t seem to get: professional research. This surprised me. A lot.

In my class, professional research is defined as any type of research that goes into a work produced as part of someone’s professional responsibilities or research that goes into improving one’s professional knowledge as part of a job. It’s not the best definition, but I was careful to try to make the distinction that professional research is research you do as part of your job, not research you do about a job.

Since professional research is going to be different for every profession, I couldn’t explain it much beyond these general terms. So I asked students to do an activity where they thought of a profession they were interested in or had experience in and explored what professional research looked like in that profession.

What I was hoping for was that, for example, a student who was interested in costume design might explore the research that goes into designing different costumes and understanding what characters wear and why. Or for a student who’s interested in being a chef to talk about studying different dishes to enhance professional knowledge. Or for a student who was interested in being a lawyer to talk about all of the research that goes into building a case.

To be clear, most of these students were traditional age. I don’t know what their work experience is but I expect that it’s relatively limited compared to someone who’s older. I didn’t expect students to know exactly what research a professional in their chosen field might do. I asked them to research the question as best they could and to fill in the gaps with well-reasoned speculation.

What I got back, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a lot of stuff about what the qualifications are for a particular job, how much schooling is needed, what the expected salary is, general information about job duties. Stuff you’d find in the Occupational Outlook Handbook. (Probably copied from there, frankly, at least in a few places.)

In other words, most of the students had not done research about what research someone does as part of a job they were interested in, they had done research about jobs they were interested in.

Why did this happen? Part of it was a stupid mistake on my part. The directions to the assignment were, I think, pretty clear but they included bullet points about what I wanted students to write about. A lot of students ignored the paragraph-long description of the context of the assignment (where a reminder of the definition of professional research was) and instead only read the bullet points (where that information was left out).

So clearly I need to rewrite the assignment directions. My bad.

But I think there might be something more to this misunderstanding too.

The reason I think that is because students also in many cases failed to understand what scholarly research is.

In the class, I defined scholarly research as research that’s intended to fill a gap in a field of knowledge. This is different from academic research (which shares many of the conventions of scholarly research) because academic research is more of a synthesis of existing ideas using research undertaken in order to fulfill an academic requirement.

Again, these are not perfect definitions. And for students who conflated academic and scholarly research, I totally understood where that was coming from. Because the conventions of academic research are intended to mimic the conventions of scholarly research, it’s easy to confuse the two if you’ve never done actual scholarly research.

But at the end of the course one student described a personal research project into rule changes in motorsports racing as scholarly research. Other students made similar errors, claiming that what were clearly personal research projects intended to fulfill their own curiosity were scholarly research.

Usually they thought this because of the nature of the sources they used. If they happened to use scholarly sources, they assumed they were doing scholarly research. I’ve seen this error before and, having anticipated seeing it again, tried to address it in some of the materials I created. It still happened, but that’s to be expected. Students are still developing their understanding about these things, after all. (In some ways, I am too.)

But in other cases they seemed to genuinely believe that their research was adding something new to a field of knowledge when all they were doing was synthesizing information from existing blogs and other websites.

It seems obvious that a source of this confusion is the fact that students don’t understand what a field of knowledge is. That’s understandable—“field of knowledge” is basically scholarly jargon. But many students who made this mistake also didn’t seem to understand what originality is. Like, they were quite confident that they had produced something original when all they had really done was not plagiarize other people. Which was…surprising. And maybe a bit troubling. (Though it was still enjoyable to read about their more personal and creative research activities—way better than reading yet another annotated bibliography.)

So I can see that for next semester I need to do more to clarify some of these ideas. Obviously, some continued misunderstanding is inevitable. The course is short and you can’t get every student over the threshold of understanding at the same pace, in such a small amount of time. It’s encouraging that students are at least developing in their understanding of the importance of context to the research process. Even those who understood what some of those contexts were ended the course saying one of their biggest takeaways was understanding that there are different types of research and that each type works a little differently. As long as they learned this much, the specifics almost don’t matter. Overall, I’m happy with how things went.

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