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As we stumble along with the blog, we thought it would be useful for you to get regular updates on new postings, so we’ve set up a Twitter account (ALPSblog), where all new posts will get noted.

So please do follow us if you want to make sure you miss nothing, or if you want a chat: I’m getting the others to dip their toes into this, so be gentle.

Killing the Term Paper

Interesting post on the Chronicle today about whether or not research papers are worth assigning.

I think a lot of the points are well taken, including the essential question of why we assign term papers beyond the fact that they are a standard part of the undergraduate process.  Blank argues that the paper is now more a check for writing prowess rather than demonstrating acquired knowledge, and that the term paper is a poorly devised device for both; essentially, the assignment bears little relation to post-graduate writing, often receives minimal feedback on the writing itself, and if the student did the work themselves and did not simply buy or ‘borrow’ the paper from somewhere, they probably did so at the last minute rather than carefully crafting the process.

Now there are ways to get around some of these issues: Turn it In can handle some plagiarism concerns, while scaffolding practices allow for time management and multiple opportunities for feedback.  But what I like about this piece is how it forces us to confront our objectives for assigning a research paper in the first place, and to question whether this type of assignment is the best approach to meeting the objective.  Why not have students write reading summaries as Blank argues, or policy memos or information literacy exercises?

Sigh.  Now I need to seriously rethink my syllabus for Environmental and Energy Security in the spring…


Reading a Journal Article

Another skill-building exercise related to information literacy that I will be using in my upcoming thesis writing course is “How to Read a Journal Article.” Students will need to locate several peer-reviewed journal articles on their thesis topics and complete worksheets that contain the following questions:

  • What is the complete bibliographic citation for the article?
  • What is the hypothesis or research question, and where is it located in the article?
  • How does the author use other sources to engage in a dialogue with scholars who have written on the same or a related topic?
  • Do any of the other sources referred to in the article look like they will be useful for your research? If so, which ones?
  • What is the dependent variable in the argument being presented?
  • How has the author operationalized the dependent variable?
  • What are the independent variables in the argument being presented?
  • How has the author operationalized the independent variables?
  • What kinds of data were collected and analyzed? What methods were used?
  • What are the conclusions in relation to the hypothesis?
  • What message is the author trying to get across about her or his work in relations to that of others?

I developed this worksheet assignment after realizing that many students simply do not know how arguments in scholarly literature are structured. It also gets to Amanda’s point about students defaulting to a Google search after they’ve been told to find and use only high-quality information. While Google Scholar might turn up some peer-review journal articles that relate to whatever topics students are researching, they need to be able to understand the arguments in those articles, which means understanding how the arguments are organized. Most students won’t practice these skills unless they are required to do so.

Fingerprints and Breadcrumbs

As a follow-up to Amanda’s post about information illiteracy:

This fall I am teaching a thesis seminar course for the first time. I have no idea what kind of research skills these students possess, and I’m a big advocate of undergraduates finding and using peer-reviewed journal literature, so I designed an at-home exercise to test their abilities. The exercise’s questions are of the “In the third paragraph on page 37 of their 2007 article in Eurasia Quarterly, Strunk and White state that natural gas production in Central Asia . . .” variety. Each successive question contains less bibliographic information that points to the correct answer. Eventually only an author’s last name and a few key words are presented.  Students get three tries on the exercise, but only the high score is recorded.

I’m hoping the exercise introduces students to certain search techniques that they don’t already know. I also want them to understand how important it is that their sources be cited by complete bibliographic information.

Online Sources in Papers: Why Allow them?

Is there any good reason to allow our students to use online sources in their papers?  I’m not talking about the online depositories for news articles, or using databases to find books, journals, and articles online, but the kinds of sites that come up in a google search on a given topic–the blogs, random pages of questionable value, and of course, wikipedia and other online encyclopedias.  I’m trying to come up with a good reason not to simply ban internet searches and randomly found websites in papers, and I’m failing.
The problem is that our students generally have pretty poor information literacy skills.  They don’t know how to find sources or how to evaluate them for quality, and even after teaching them these things, they often find it hard to break the habit of simply doing a google search when they need information.  And there are many sites out there that are far worse than wikipedia–http://www.martinlutherking.org/ is one of the most insidious.

Banning the use of google as a search-engine or general internet sites would force students to learn and use the proper mediums for finding information.  This can be done by creating a subject page via the college library that lists appropriate sources (such as polling websites, archives, government web pages, etc) and links to databases, or by creating an individual one and handing it out to students.  In my experience, they are often very grateful to have a list of sites to work with.  You can take this further and ban all internet sites, forcing students to use physical copies of books and journals, if you like.  The goal is the same: jar students out of the habit of using Google as a shortcut for real research.

None of my classes have projects this semester that involve research papers, so I won’t have a chance to try this out in the fall.  I will in the spring though, for my environmental and energy security class.  I’m not sure of the best way to conduct the ‘ban’ though: fail any papers with non-approved sources?  fail, but give students the chance to earn full credit if they rewrite it using appropriate sources? Or just give a large penalty, like a full letter grade reduction?

Regardless, i think it is appropriate to give students an assignment early on that helps them understand why some sources are more legitimate than others, and to help them build their information literacy skills.  This must occur prior to the assignment where poor sources are banned, else the penalty will seem rather arbitrary and not an assessment of a skill learned earlier.

Exercise: Evaluating Sources

In my last post, I bemoaned the Methods Silo Effect and how we should not assume that students are proficient at all the skills required to write a research paper without practice or guidance.  I also promised to post some exercises to help students develop these skills.  Here is the first, on evaluating sources, adapted from an exercise presented by the facilitators of the workshop on “Making it Blend: Integrating and Assessing Research Skills,” offered at the Webster Global Citizenship Program Summer Collaboratory last week.  Feel free to adapt as needed, but as always, if you use it, please report back here on how it went.

Evaluating Sources Assignment

Goal: Give students practice in analyzing sources of evidence.


  •  Locate three publications that discuss [insert topic/literature of interest here]

These publications must include one each of the following:

1.  A government publication

2. Popular press or newspaper source

3. Peer-reviewed academic journal article

  • Write a full citation for each source in [insert preferred style here, APA/MLA, etc].
  • Answer the following questions about each source:
  1. Who is the author?
  2. What are the authors credentials?
  3. How might their affiliation or identity influence the content of this publication?
  4. Who is the intended audience for this work? How do you know?
  5. What is the purpose of this publication? (inform? educate? persuade? soapbox?)
  6. Is this a primary or secondary source?
  7. Is this a good source of information for a research paper on this topic? Why or why not?


The Methods Silo Effect and Fixing Poor Research Skills

Today I want to discuss the Methods Silo Effect: the belief that a single methods class or sequence is sufficient to teach our students the skills of a political scientist.  Following this course, no more instruction in research skills should be needed, and students should be able to employ these skills without additional practice.

This is a dangerous assumption.

First, a confession: I LOVE teaching methods.  People don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true.  There is something so freeing about teaching a skill, rather than content, and ties into my longstanding interest of using the non-political to teach the political.  Want to teach students about how to evaluate evidence and look for contradictions?  Great: use Zendo.  Need a way of showing students the difference between a random source and The Literature?  There is a scene in episode 1:3 of Sherlock where Watson notes some interesting details about a piece of evidence, and Sherlock’s reply notes how Watson ‘missed almost everything of importance”. It is therefore somewhat easy for me to suggest that methods training be incorporated more widely into our content courses.

In isolation,  a single methods course or sequence is simply not enough to really build the research skills of our students. First, one class must by nature be a hodge-podge that includes at a minimum research design, ethics, stats, qualitative approaches, philosophy of social science, writing, professionalization, and basic research skills.  Choices must be made about where to go in-depth and where to make cuts, and it is unlikely that students will be truly proficient in all these areas at the end of a course.  While other methods and skills courses may be available, this is not necessarily a panacea: if required, they pose opportunity costs at the expense of content courses; if not required, students are unlikely to take them.  Regardless, there are logistical issues for smaller departments in terms of finding faculty to offer these classes.

Second, skill retention is an issue. We all have seen the student who recognizes a concept or name, but cannot define or identify it despite having previously done well on a test on the subject.  Methods in particular depends on reinforcement and active use of the concepts, and three or four activities and assignments on the same area is not necessarily sufficient for students to have truly internalized the skill. As with a  foreign language, constant exposure and use is needed for the skill to really develop.

Third, restricting methods to a single class makes students question the very value of taking the class. They tend to come in suspicious or scared of methods as it is, and if they only encounter the ‘math stuff’ in the one class, they may not fully appreciate the role of methods in political science and thus end with a distorted view of the discipline.

My particular concern is less on stats and more on the basic research skills that we expect all of students to have. And I worry that it is in this area that we are most in danger of failing our students when we fall prey to the methods silo effect.

Yesterday I attended a session on research skills at my university’s Global Citizenship Project Summer Collaboratory, a venue for discussing the implications of our new general education program. The facilitator’s passed out a handout on information literacy from the Association of College and Research Libraries that said the following (paraphrased):

A competent researcher is able to:

  • Determine that additional information is needed (ie, their own opinion is insufficient)
  • Access the necessary information (find sources effectively)
  • Evaluation information and sources critically
  • Reflect on the information and potentially reevaluate existing opinions
  • Use the information effectively in making an argument
  • Cite appropriately to avoid plagiarism

The facilitators then asked us to consider at what stage in the process do students tend to get into trouble.  Most people cited the second and third areas as the most troublesome spots. My answer: ever single stage.

Sobering, but true.  I’ve seen every step go wrong.  I get papers that are full of first-person opinion with not a single external source, as it never occurs to the student despite explicit instructions that outside opinions are necessary to make their point.  Others have “sources,” but rely on Wikipedia and the first five results from google.  Few papers are brave enough to include potentially contradictory evidence; more common is what I call the 2 AM Problem, where students discover a piece of evidence that contradicts their thesis several hours before the paper is due, and rather than struggling with it or revising their work, they pretend it never existed.  Then we have the papers that are strings of endless quotes with no original argument, or where the evidence and the thesis don’t quite match.  And then we finally have the papers that commit none of these sins, but instead lack footnotes, citations, or have a bibliography of simple URLs.  I suspect we all have our horror stories.

And yet how many of us go forward with assigning research papers, trusting that students either have the above skills already or will somehow manifest them before turning in the work for our course, only to be disappointed in the final product?  I have certainly been guilty of this. At best I require a one-page topic description and annotated bibliography and offer to read rough drafts; many instructors go further and require rough drafts and peer-editing.  Such measures are crucial, but they are often designed as assessments rather than continued skill-training exercises, or are more aimed at defeating the average student’s poor time management skills than reinforcing skills. Noble goals, but still, not enough.

Just as we require students to learn the content in our classes, if we wish to assign research papers, then we must be willing to teach students how to do them, step by step, and give them a chance to practice the skills before they are assessed on them.  We must escape from a methods silo mentality: A single methods class (or even a sequence) will not do; these skills must be practiced and reinforced throughout the major.

I have a few exercises already on these skills and I will post a few of them in the coming weeks.  But I want to invite comments pointing to ideas and assignments that readers have found useful in helping students not only break the research process down into manageable chunks, but to actually practice the different stages before being graded on a final effort.


The importance of information literacy can be difficult for undergraduates to grasp. For most of them, all information is created equal and it comes from Google. Now Google is helping to educate students out of these habits. The website includes sample lesson plans and videos for instructors who want to integrate information  literacy training into face-to-face or online courses.

Instructors can also use A Google A Day to test students search skills — it’s fast, fun, but not necessarily easy.

Using Sherlock to Teach Sources v. the Literature

One of the challenges with students is that they often aren’t trained to recognize the difference between sources and the literature.  We may attempt to teach them the difference between primary and secondary, or scholarly and non-scholarly, but even amongst solid scholarly sources there are differences: there are the key works that make up the core of the literature on a debate, and there are the sources that sit on the fringes of the debate or never even quite enter into it.  Students think sources are something to use to prove their point, rather than a place to start out their process to discover what others have already discovered.  Even if you can get them to accept that scholarly sources are superior to, say, Wikipedia (a daunting task!), it can be difficult to explain to them that there is a difference between the literature and random sources, and that its important.

Enter Sherlock Holmes.

I’m a bit obsessed with the new BBC series called Sherlock, which if you haven’t seen it is a clever modern retelling of the stories.  Imagine Sherlock Holmes with a smartphone, and you have the heart of this series.  There is one particular scene in the first season that is useful in helping students understand the core of the above lesson.  In episode 3, starting at 19:53 (per Netflix instant), Sherlock asks Watson’s opinion of a pair of sneakers.  With encouragement, Watson notes some facts about them and their owner from the worn sole, clean appearance, and writing on the inside.  He asks Sherlock how he does, and he replies ‘Well, John.  Very well.  Of course you missed everything of importance.”  Sherlock then figures out the ‘important’ details–that the child had a skin condition, that he was from Sussex, and that he loved the shoes dearly.

I used this in my methods class today to get students thinking ‘What would Sherlock Do?’.  In other words, finding facts is not particularly difficult, but it also doesn’t tell us the whole story, and without the right facts, we are left completely in the dark about the phenomenon we are studying.  The right facts–or the literature–put us on the path of discovery.  Finding the right facts also means that Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t think of us as idiots…so again, ‘What would Sherlock Do?’  An amusing way to teach a simple but incredibly important lesson, and usable not only in methods, but any class where you expect students to use scholarly sources or do a literature review for a research paper.