When talking about locating sources for an assignment, students often remain task-oriented and focus on “finding” rather than on learning, and our own research demonstrates this remains true for many PLU students. In general, students already know how to search for information but are unable to apply what they already know into a new context. In other words, students need guidance with framing research questions, seeing patterns in the literature, weighing the relevance of evidence, and identifying the gaps in their research.

Similarly, assignments may sometimes fall into a similar trap. When we ask students to find a certain number of sources, we are signaling that what matters is the number of sources. Focusing on the process (learning from their sources, for example) rather than on the outputs or products will help shift the focus of the assignment and align it closer to the learning outcomes of a course or program. By making a few small changes, you can help students learn transferable research practices and develop new habits of mind/ways of thinking.

Suggested Small Changes

  • Use phrases like “exploring resources” instead of “finding sources” in order to shift the focus toward building understanding. This shift in language will also help to emphasize that research is iterative and not something that happens just before writing an essay.
  • Avoid the reification of sources, which leads students to think of sources as containing a single piece of information to insert into their own work (like the conduit metaphor).
  • Model your own research practices and ways of thinking for students before handing out an assignment or as students work through their own research.
    • Explain and demonstrate how you use a particular discipline-specific database, or how you “read” or engage with a list of search results.
    • Depending on the context, the focus should be on your disciplinary expertise or the goals of any particular assignment.
  • Consider when and whether or not academic sources will be most relevant and useful to complete student work.
    • If academic sources are useful and relevant, explain why this is the case beyond the fact that this is what is expected of them while they are in college.
    • If academic sources are not useful or relevant, explain why other sources of information might be more appropriate for this particular task.
  • Build in opportunities for students to learn from failure, such as an unsuccessful search for relevant sources. Work with students to see that unsuccessful searches are common and part of the research and learning process, and that “failed” searches are moments to reflect, reconsider their approach, and try again.
  • Reflect on when you are teaching students your expert methods of research, and when you are slowing down to explain the research process to someone who is not an expert.