More college kids stumped on research papers

Mar 23, 2011

Writing a research paper should be easy for students today. They’ve got libraries, online databases and all of Google at their fingertips.

But an ongoing study out of the University of Washington’s Information School is finding that college students find it tougher to do research today than in the past—even with access to more sources than students have ever had before.

Starting to research

Jackson Hathorn is sitting in the library, flipping through his notebook. He’s a senior at the University of Washington, graduating soon. But first, he has to finish his history thesis.

He’s taken pages and pages of notes. He’s read through dozens of online sources. And he already knows what he wants to write about:

The state of Jefferson, which is the secession movement that occurred between the states of Oregon and California, which was in the 1940s.

So why is he stuck?

"You can get too bogged down with the sheer multitude of what’s out there. I end up putting off writing the paper by researching more. And so I’m just always looking for that mythical, end-all source that’s going to be out there," says Hathorn.

Studying research habits

Alison Head is leading an ongoing study about students’ research habits. She says students today are less adept at doing research than they think—and less skilled than students in the past:

"Students are really overwhelmed with all the sources they do have at their fingertips. The idea of exhaustive research is really a quaint memory," says Head.

The research scientist at the UW's Information School first started thinking about information literacy when she was a professor. "A student that I’d had in several classes, a straight-A student said, ‘can I confide in you? I have to do research for my thesis. How do you do research? I’ve never been to the library.'"

Head realized students today can sometimes excel in college without knowing how to do basic research. She wanted to find out more about how college kids’ research habits have evolved in the digital age.

The study surveyed more than 8,000 students at schools across the country—from community colleges to Ivy Leagues.

"We asked students, what goes through your head when you get a research assignment? Specifically, using libraries or the Internet for finding information to support an argument. And then decide as a student, what you want to say about a particular topic," says the UW

Head found many students have trouble getting started writing a paper. They’re excited when they get the assignment, but start to worry that their topic will fall apart as they move forward. That there won’t be enough sources, or that they won’t know how to find them. They’re unsure what professors expect of them.

Head is often asked if students today are different, not knowing a world without computers.

Questions on the paper

That’s something Steve Yarborough has noticed. He’s a professor at Bellevue College and teaches a class on research paper writing:

"Ten years ago, I could say you’re going to write a paper and you can pick any topic you want, and students would say, ‘all right, great, I’m ready to go.’ Now it’s, ‘how many pages? How many sources? What kinds of sources?’ They have to have every question answered," Yarbrough says.

Yarborough adds the older students - the ones who come back to school after working for a while - don’t struggle as much.

Study author Alison Head has a few tips for students and professors: library workshops to help a student get started. And annotated bibliographies, where students really have to scrutinize the sources they use.

Finding that perfect source

Jackson Hathorn finally finished his thesis and flew back home to California.

He says he rewrote the paper a couple times, but made himself stop looking for sources once he turned in a rough draft. As deadlines drew closer, he admits to pulling a few all-nighters.

Looking back, Hathorn wishes he started sooner and had a better grasp on which direction to take the paper. He didn’t realize how much it would change from an idea to a final product.

And as for that elusive, perfect source?

"There have been times where I found it, almost, and realized that wow, this historical monograph talks about everything I want to talk about. And I kind of realized the perfect source is almost deflating in a way because it makes me think I have nothing original or interesting to say on the topic," Hathorn adds.

Just like there usually is no perfect source, sometimes there’s no neat little ending to a research project.

But research isn’t always about being right. It’s about learning, investigating, exploring new reasons for why things happen the way they do. Don’t believe us? You can look it up.