Professor's Guidance Suggested: Easing Anxiety in Student Research

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My students’ expressions were blank when I asked how the research projects were coming along. The class, an upper-level hybrid course, meets face to face only once a week. Our limited time together has led to my wanting each meeting to be chalk full of content to prepare students for the readings, films, and independent work that follows online. On this day, however, I prodded them with questions about an assignment they were working on independently: have you found adequate primary and secondary sources? Have you met with the reference librarian? Are you comfortable with the assigned method of citation? A painful silence met each of my queries.

    As an historian, I love research. I enjoy even the most general search of a library’s digital catalog -- all the better when I encounter an old-fashioned card catalog. Sometimes I will do a search “just to see” what the library has on a topic to satisfy my curiosity. My students, I’ve discovered, do not share my sense of excitement and wonder in the library. For a history professor this reluctance on the part of students to engage in research can be quite challenging.

    In general, my students are very uncomfortable in the library. When I taught at a residential four-year college I could safely assume that the students had been through a library introduction as part of freshman orientation. At a community college, however, the students’ level of preparedness is dramatically uneven. As a result I have incorporated library instruction into every one of my survey-level courses. The knowledgeable reference librarians work with me to plan the class time. I share with them the goals of the assignment and together we brainstorm the kinds of questions and challenges the students might face as they begin their work.

Critical to this class time in the library is my participation alongside the students. As they follow along with the librarian, I do as well. The benefit of my participation is that students see that I value what is being taught to them. If I leave them with the librarian and hang out in my office during their instruction then I lose the opportunity to share the experience and, more importantly, to watch them squirm in their library-induced discomfort; both are critical to my understanding of who they are as students.

The students in this particular course should have had sufficient academic training to conduct the research projects on their own. Their silent response to my questions, however, told me otherwise. With only a couple weeks left in the semester I had to take a drastic step: for the following week’s meeting we would abandon content and conduct research in the library together.

In future blogs for Macmillan Community I will offer suggestions as to what has worked and not worked as short research projects with my students. For now, however, I’ll end with this friendly reminder: research, like everything else we do, takes practice. I have come to accept that I cannot expect students in their early years of college to successfully (and comfortably) conduct research without a lot practice. To even the brightest first or second-year college student, a research project that comprises a large percentage of the final course grade can be incredibly overwhelming. With manageable assignments, patient instruction, and guidance, however, all students can learn to successfully navigate library research without fear.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.