I was initially puzzled by the headline “Research-Assignment Handouts Give Students Meager Guidance, Survey Finds,” and the opening sentences didn’t help much:
Most research-assignment handouts given to undergraduates fail to guide the students toward a comprehensive strategy for completing the work, according to two researchers at the University of Washington who are studying how students conduct research and find information.
My initial reaction was “If I could give them a comprehensive strategy for completing the work, it wouldn’t be research.” Then I noticed the last three words, and remembered the source– this is the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is almost exclusively about the concerns of humanities and social science faculty. When they talk about research assignments, they mean library research, not the sort of experimental or computational research projects we put students on in the sciences.
This is a key difference that gets trampled over a lot of the time. When the college revised the general education requirements a few years ago, one of the new courses created had as one of its key goals to teach students the difference between primary and secondary sources. Which, again, left me feeling like it didn’t really fit our program– as far as I’m concerned, the “primary source” in physics is the universe. If you did the experiment yourself, then your data constitute a primary source. Anything you can find in the library is necessarily a secondary source, whether it’s the original research paper, a review article summarizing the findings in some field, or a textbook writing about it years later.
In many cases, students are much better off reading newer textbook descriptions of key results than going all the way back to the “primary source” in the literature. Lots of important results in science were initially presented in a form much different than the fuller modern understanding. Going back to the original research articles often requires deciphering cumbersome and outdated notation, when the same ideas are presented much more clearly in newer textbooks.
That’s not really what they’re looking for in the course in question, though– they don’t want it to be a lab course. But then it doesn’t feel like a “research methods” class at all– while we do occasional literature searches, for the most part that’s accomplished by tracing back direct citations from recent articles. When I think about teaching students “research methods,” I think of things like teaching basic electronics, learning to work an oscilloscope, basic laser safety and operation, and so on. The library is a tiny, tiny part of what I do when I do research, and the vast majority of the literature searching I do these days can be done from my office computer.
I keep toying with the idea of doing one of the courses that people on the other side of campus describe as teaching “research methods,” so I’ll need to get a better handle on what they’re looking for, and how I could incorporate those elements. It’s hard to shake a couple of decades of thinking about research like a scientist, though.