TEP TeachBlog headerWhither Research? « Teaching Effectiveness Program

Whither Research?

This is the second of two posts engaging the question of the future of research and teaching in higher education.

Part Two: Opportunities

Last week, in part one, I introduced two trends that pose serious challenges to the future of research in higher education: student are struggling with learning basic research skills and libraries are struggling with affording access to increasingly expensive scholarly journals and databases.

We shall now consider two key questions: How do we ensure that students, our next generation of researchers, acquire the skills, experience, and confidence required to engage in quality research?  And, how do we ensure that knowledge does not become the special privilege of a few who can afford access to it, but remains readily accessibly by everyone? As we shall see, positive answers to both these questions are related.

George D. Kuh has identified undergraduate research as a “high impact educational practice,” meaning that it has been demonstrated to have significant impact on student learning success. Many institutions are now promoting more intensive focus on undergraduate research across all disciplines, although it is most prominent in the sciences.  Such research is often combined with other high impact practices such as collaborative projects or capstone courses, and results of the research process are shared through use of presentations, posters, eportfolios, or other means, in addition to the traditional thesis or “term paper.”

Student research can be incorporated in courses in a variety of ways and need not culminate in a “final product” such as a paper, presentation, or portfolio. Depending on the course learning objectives, an instructor may choose to focus only on one or two essential research skills, such as how to read critically or define a problem adequately.  As a general rule, the more extensive the research process students are asked to engage in, the more time and attention should be devoted to walking students through it and allowing them to practice, including use of class time for these purposes. Possible approaches might include group work during and outside of class, instructor demonstrations in class, class discussions, and other active learning approaches that engage students in skill-building activities early and often, helping them progress throughout the term. TEP is happy to help you develop approaches that fit your course needs and contribute to more rewarding teaching and learning experiences.

An obvious but often underutilized resource that can aid the teaching of research is the library, specifically subject librarians who specialize in particular disciplines and subject areas. Librarians can assist instructors in a variety of ways, such as offering student research sessions tailored specifically to a particular course, help with designing library research assignments, and being available to help students throughout the term, among other services.

Working with the library in this way also exposes students to a wealth of scholarly resources and knowledge, and the more familiar students become with the key resources that libraries offer, and with how to use them, the better chance that students will come to value research and access to knowledge. Such valuing is critical if libraries and institutions of higher education are to buck the trend towards commodification of knowledge (see part one) and prevent knowledge from becoming a “luxury for the few” rather than a right enjoyed by all. As Fister notes in her liberation bibliography manifesto, “We have a republic only if we can keep it. If we continue to pour our resources into renting access and into training students on how to pass courses using temporary access to information that will not be available to them when they graduate, we won’t keep our republic.”

In short, improving undergraduate research skills and maintaining the viability of libraries as portals to knowledge open to everyone, go hand in hand. If we expect research to flourish in the future, and if we desire for our university to remain a rich, rewarding place to pursue research, then we have to embrace these challenges.   We can begin by creating opportunities in our classes for students to develop and hone their research skills, expose themselves to new knowledge, work with other academics within the framework of intellectual collaboration, and cultivate an interest and perhaps even love for inquiry that lasts a lifetime.

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