As reported by The Times Higher Ed, recently a group of librarians, faculty and instructors at Cornell University ran a week-long Undergraduate Information Competency Initiative aimed at exploring “creative and effective ways to engage students by integrating research skills into the classroom and the curriculum.”

What struck me as different was the group’s use of competency (which denotes a skill set) as opposed to the historical preference for the word literacy (which denotes some sort of deeper and fundamental ability to function in society). The Association of Colleges & Research Libraries has maintained that librarians focus on information literacy.

Still, while groups battle over words, the concepts don’t appear to have changed. In fact, little seems to have changed since the mid-1990s – professors and librarians are still scratching their heads about how to engage their students in serious information research, considering that the web encourages skimming, bouncing, and shallow reading.

What does appear to work is setting minimal academic requirements for student research papers. Require that students include a minimum number of scholarly resources in their papers (with examples of what a scholarly resource is), and students seem to learn the skills to find these sources pretty quickly. We should avoid the temptation to think of students as stupid and lazy, and realize that they respond similarly to rewards as the rest of us.

Change the syllabus, and you’ll change the world.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


1 Thought on "The Syllabus — Key to Changing Student Research Behavior"

Perhaps part of the problem is that many universities still design courses around the old days when it took a lot of time to get information needed for a research paper and then a lot of time to put it into context. Analysis was hard and synthesis was harder.

Thus the term paper was born.

Today, getting information is easy. Analysis is easier than before. Getting facts, breaking things down no longer requires weeks to perform. This side of the equation has been decreased tremendously.

We forget that learning how to put it all together is still hard. So focus on synthesis.

Design courses around a lot of shorter information laden bits that can then be put together into a larger whole at the end.

They can get practice at the hard part, at synthesis, with direction from the instructor on process and format.

I think one point missed here is that while individuals can do analysis easier from the internet, we now also do synthesis better – by utilizing online social networks.

If universoties now incorporate online social media in the classes, they can accelerate both sides and help individuals gain skills much faster.

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