For the past six and a half years, I have been teaching Freshman about peer-review and how to find peer-reviewed articles through the library (or Google Scholar). I’ve developed all sorts of activities in different disciplines to get students thinking about audience, writing style, and the format of the articles they find. And every year, I become more and more convinced that having first-year students use peer-reviewed literature in their research is a terrible idea that takes the focus away from what is important for them to learn.

I have also sat at the reference desk for six and a half years helping first-year students find their required three peer-reviewed articles (sometimes more, sometimes less, but usually 3) for their papers that I know they probably won’t understand. Expecting a first-year student to be able to grasp literary criticism and science articles written for other PhD’s seems crazy to me. And the articles are usually so specific (like “Machines and Animals: Pervasive Motifs in ‘The Grapes of Wrath'” or “Chemical Recycling of Carbon Dioxide to Methanol and Dimethyl Ether: From Greenhouse Gas to Renewable, Environmentally Carbon Neutral Fuels and Synthetic Hydrocarbons”) that it’s rare to find a good fit for the students’ more basic topics in the scholarly literature. It becomes more about finding an article that is at least somewhat related to their topic than finding good evidence for their argument.

I don’t remember a professor in college ever requiring me to use peer-reviewed articles in my papers. I actually don’t remember there ever being specific requirements about sources in research papers. It was mainly about our writing and finding good sources that supported our argument. Maybe Wesleyan University is just a weird place (actually I know it is), but I think this strategy was right on the money, because it helped us to focus more on finding content that we both understood and that was useful to our research rather than focusing on finding a specific kind of research which we may not even have understood well once we got to reading it. Of course, I was in college back when the Web was new and no one in their right mind thought to use it as a research tool. Still, I think one can require students to use solid evidence for their argument without necessarily requiring students to use peer-reviewed literature.

I understand perfectly that faculty want their first-year students to find quality resources and they want their students to have an understanding of scholarly communication. But is the best way to do that forcing them to find scholarly articles for a research paper? That requires so many different skills that many of these students don’t have yet:

1. The ability to turn a topic into a search strategy
2. The ability to search in library databases
3. The ability to look at a citation and determine whether it is a scholarly journal or not (or maybe they’ve just checked a box in a database which means that they never need to learn this important skill)
4. The ability to read an abstract and determine whether the article is relevant to their topic
5. The ability to read a scholarly journal article and synthesize information from it
6. The ability to integrate evidence from the scholarly literature into their paper
7. The ability to write effectively

And making students do all that when usually they are only getting 1, 2, and 3 from the librarian and probably 7 from the instructor sends students a terrible message in their first year. Research is painful. Scholarly articles are impossible to read. YOU CAN’T DO THIS! The first year should be about showing students that they can do it. It should be about getting them excited about participating in research and contributing to the scholarly conversation. And that doesn’t mean making things easy, but it also doesn’t mean stacking the deck so much against students that they are soured on research. I remember Freshman year being a huge smack-down for me (a know-it-all 18-year-old who was academically a big fish in a small pond during high school), but while I remember realizing how little I knew, I also felt very engaged with the research I was doing. I was reading things deeply, trying to make novel arguments, and was thinking about issues from multiple points of view. Research was about expanding my horizons and I just wonder if that’s the effect the sort of research assignments I tend to see first year students doing today has on them.

Another thing that the focus on requiring students to only find peer-reviewed sources does is that it distances them from research and information literacy. Information literacy should be seen as a life-long process of information seeking. Information literacy is about finding reviews of cell phones to choose the best one for you. It’s about researching an illness you were just diagnosed with. But when the focus is on telling students that the only quality stuff comes from the peer-reviewed literature, we are distancing what students learn in school about information literacy from what they will do in the real world. Information literacy instruction should be relevant to students’ lives and help them develop transferable skills, but in so many cases, the assignment the students have forces us to focus on getting them through a single class, rather than on giving them skills they can use later on.

What should first-year students focus on in terms of writing and research? Well, I think it’s great to have them do a lot of writing, and a lot of it should be focused on different types of writing, not just research papers. They need to develop their ability to make an argument without focusing on integrating evidence. And students can learn how to integrate evidence even without doing any searching. Instructors can provide sources that allow students to write an argumentative paper where the focus is on synthesizing what they’ve read and integrating evidence into their paper. And it’s easier for faculty to assess how they did if they’ve actually read the articles. I think they also should learn about scholarly communication, but not through an assignment that requires them to find, read and use peer-reviewed journal articles. I love what Kate Gronemyer and Anne-Marie Deitering described in their article “Beyond Peer-Reviewed Articles: Using Blogs to Enrich Students’ Understanding of Scholarly Work”, where they had students in first-year writing classes read blogs by scholars in specific disciplines to understand scholarly communication. By using something familiar to students (blogs) they can focus on learning about scholarly communication rather than focus on learning how to read peer-reviewed articles. It also can get them to see themselves as researchers who can contribute to the conversation. It makes it all so much more accessible. I also love the idea of giving all students in a class peer-reviewed articles from different disciplines and have them analyze them together. It can not only help them to understand and dissect peer-reviewed literature, but it can also show them the differences in scholarly communication in different disciplines. Students need to learn how to read, analyze, evaluate and synthesize information from the scholarly literature, and I don’t think those learning goals are met by most research paper assignments. I think some focus on understanding the different types of journal literature and the audiences for each would also be valuable, but their understanding of that can be assessed by activities where they have to find different types kinds of sources or where they have the sources already (or even just citations) and have to figure out what they are. I’d want students to develop the component skills necessary to make them successful at writing a research paper before they are actually asked to do so.

And probably most librarians know all this already. Unfortunately, we’re rarely the ones developing assignments. And while some of us have good relationships with our faculty where we can make suggestions, many, even the most diligent liaisons, don’t. I really appreciate the point-of-view of our newish head of the Center for Online Learning at PSU who sees librarians as having a critical role in assignment design, and feels that faculty should always consult with their subject librarian when they are developing research-related assignments. I love this idea, but know that we couldn’t be further from most faculty members’ minds when they are developing assignments (probably a few days before the start of classes). We’re lucky at PSU in that our year-long Freshman Inquiry program is focused on the development of core skills already, so I don’t know if this problem is as big as it was at Norwich, but after seeing a gaggle of first-year students in another discipline this week coming to the reference desk needing peer-reviewed articles on their topic (and not knowing really what that even meant), I know it’s a problem at least in some quarters.

How have you dealt with this issue at your institution? Have you been able to get through to disciplinary faculty? What strategies have you used to develop these valuable skills in students in spite of the existence of bad research assignments?