Don’t Find Sources, Find Out

A small tweak in the way an assignment is worded might help students understand that finding sources isn’t the point of a research task, rather it’s finding out what people have to say in sources and how they fit together as you create new understanding.

So instead of saying “find five sources,” try saying “find out about” the topic the student is researching. Then you can clarify how you want students to “find out about” – by looking at both scholarly and popular sources, by focusing on research in a particular discipline, by looking at primary and secondary sources, for instance. You might also ask “who is talking about this issue? who are they talking to?” to help students grasp the rhetorical dimensions of research. Then you can specify a number to give them a sense of the scale of the search you want them to engage in, but still keep the focus on people talking to each other about ideas through publications.

Google has arguably predisposed us to seek information in ways similar to shopping for things online, putting information created for different purposes into a vast idea store. Library databases are not that different – the route in is through keywords rather than relationships among people talking to other people in distinctive ways. By highlighting people and their ideas, students may be more inclined to understand the purpose of sources: they aren’t things you collect, they are ways people talk to each other.