Traci Gardner

Casting a Wider Research Net: Using Research Tools

Blog Post created by Traci Gardner Expert on Mar 13, 2019

Overhead shot of a white woman doing research on a library computerWhen I create an assignment, I intend the information I include about research requirements to suggest starting points and to encourage exploration. Instead, students probably use that information to determine the bare minimum required, doing only the research described instead of jumping off into deeper exploration.

Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg (2010) examined “How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students,” finding that students use assignments less as a guide and more as a road map. If the assignment handout calls for three sources, students use only three sources. Directed by the assignment handout to use at least two books and an online site, students meet the requirement and find little or no more.

In an earlier study, Head and Eisenberg (2009) reported that “Almost every student in the sample turned to course readings—not Google—first for course-related research assignments. Likewise, Google and Wikipedia were the go-to sites for everyday life research for nearly every respondent” (3).

I’m left with a conundrum: I want students to look beyond the course textbooks, Google, and Wikipedia, but I don’t want to prescribe the kinds and number of resources they should consult. My ultimate goal is to teach students how to thoroughly research a topic on their own, choosing the best tools to use and gathering relevant sources for their research projects.

I designed the following activity to kick off students’ research. In it, I ask students to evaluate the available research tools and then plan how to use those tools to conduct their research project.

The activity below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. I took the six kinds of research tools from a list from the course textbook, Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication (12th edition). You can easily customize the activity for your class by using the list of resources from your own textbook. Any textbook that covers writing research projects will include a similar list.

Finding Useful Research Tools for Your Project

The section on “Understanding Research Tools” (pp. 121–122) in Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication discusses the following six kinds of resources you can consult when you conduct research:

  • Library catalogs
  • Online databases
  • Newspaper and periodical indexes
  • Abstract services
  • Web search engines
  • Reference works

For each of the six research tools, provide the information below. Your answer will map out how you will conduct research for your project.

Step 1: Determine the Usefulness of the Research Tools

Indicate how each of the six research tools is (or isn’t) appropriate for your research project by responding to the following questions.

  1. What specific research tools in the category are available for your topic? For example, name the online databases that are appropriate for your topic.
  2. What kind of information are you likely to find using the particular tool?
  3. How relevant is the information to your research project?
  4. Based on your evaluation, how appropriate is the kind of tool for your research project?

Step 2: Plan Your Use of the Research Tools

For each tool that is appropriate for your research project, explain specifically how you will use the tool.

  1. What keywords will you use with each tool?
  2. What kind of research sources will you look for with each tool?
  3. How will you manage the sources that you find? In other words, indicate how you will save or borrow the sources.

The answers to these questions may be similar for the different research tools. Try using a table to organize the information to simplify your response. You do not need to use full sentences for Step 2.

I’ll supplement this activity with links to some specific resources from the campus library, such as these Research Guides for Various Subject Areas. I will also suggest that students consult a librarian for help.

I think my assignment meets my goal. It encourages students to research beyond the familiar sources like their textbook and Google. At the same time, it guides students toward easily accessible resources without telling them exactly what to do. Next week, I will share a follow-up activity that asks students to report on the specific resources they have discovered.

Do you have an activity to share that helps students engage in deeper exploration when they conduct a research project? I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about it by leaving a comment below.

Photo credit: All She’s Armed With Is Research. by Markus Binzegger on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

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