Research: What Are Professors Really Looking For?

Something to consider when you are asked to do research as part of a school project is exactly what that research requirement is assessing. In other words, when you are asked to incorporate research into an essay, there are certain course concepts or basic skills your instructor wants to see that you have learned and can now apply. Is the goal simply to learn new knowledge based on your research—or is there something more?

Think of it this way: imagine a hypothetical History 101 class. You go to class and learn a lot of factual material. You learn birth dates and death dates. You learn about important historical events and when they occurred—and you take lots of notes. Now it's exam time and you are presented with a multiple-choice test in which you are asked to demonstrate knowledge you have learned in class. So let's say that one day in class you learned that Barack Obama was first elected president of the United States in 2008.

Now, on the final exam, you are asked this question: When was Barack Obama first elected president of the United States? And you fill in the answer: 2008. You have demonstrated through a class assessment that you have been there and learned class material.

Of course, most classes you take and most assignments you have to complete will be more complicated than this hypothetical example. But notice how closely the assessment is tied to the time you spent in class. When your professor grades your work, he or she will see immediately whether you have learned the material and can now apply that knowledge in a testing situation.

Be sure you think about all assessments in this way, whether they are multiple-choice tests, short-answer quizzes, or major research essays. Ask yourself what course knowledge you are being asked to show your professor. What facts, ideas, and concepts are you showing you have learned? Too often, students seem to forget the basic premise of an assignment: it provides your instructor with the opportunity to see that you have learned what you need to learn in a course.

So what does using research in an assignment show you have learned? Most people will immediately say that doing research is a way of learning about a topic. So, in answer to the question, "What does using research in an essay show you have learned?" we might say that research shows we have learned about a topic.

This is true, but it is only half the story—and maybe not the important half. What you are also showing your professor is that you can undertake the process of research effectively. This includes finding appropriate sources, assessing their reliability, integrating them effectively into your own writing, and citing them correctly. We normally refer to this group of related skills as information literacy: the ability to find, evaluate, and use information effectively.

Notice that all of the skills that make up information literacy are independent of the topic you are researching. So remember that oftentimes what your professors want to see is how well—or if—you can do research effectively, not that you learned about climate change or Shakespeare or cold fusion.

Now consider for a moment whether an essay in which all of your sources are from the Web shows your professor much about your abilities as a researcher. And if the Web sites you used were the ones that just happened to show up first in the Web-search results lists—what does this show about your abilities as a researcher? Not much. Even if what you found fits the topic, you have provided no evidence that your research process was sound.