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Do Adult Students Need to Become Skilled Researchers?

Now more than ever, research skills are important for adult students to make the transition from the academy into the workforce. Photo by Kate Ter Haar.

There are numerous studies demonstrating that students tend to be much poorer researchers than most faculty members are willing to believe. When it comes to adult students, limited time, well-defined goals, and a desire to get the qualifications and get out, may make the development of yet one more skill – research ability – simply not a priority.

What do we mean by research ability? This has been fairly well spelled out by the Association of College and Research Libraries. In summary form, research skills (information literacy) involve the ability to identify a research problem, determine what types of information are needed to address it, locate the appropriate information and evaluate it in light of criteria such as quality and relevance, and then make good use of the information to resolve the problem. While research skills may be used during a student’s coursework, they also foster critical thinking and problem solving abilities as life skills.

There are a lot of voices today who argue, either that research skill is easily learned (it is not) or that it isn’t really needed, since few students will become researchers after graduation. I would like to suggest a number of reasons why students, adult students in particular, need to develop sophisticated research skills while involved in higher education.

First, we live in an information age in which most employment will involve the practical use of information to further the goals of the workplace. Let me give you some concrete examples. The American Management Association in its 2010 Critical Skills Survey [1] listed as skills needed in the workplace: “Critical thinking and problem solving—including the ability to make decisions, solve problems, and take action as appropriate” as well as “Effective communication—the ability to synthesize and transmit your ideas both in written and oral formats.” These are research skills.

The Institute for the Future for the University of Phoenix Research Institute, in a 2011 study entitled Future Work Skills 2020 [2], listed among its ten skills for the future workplace, Sense-making (“ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed”), Novel & Adaptive Thinking (“proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based), New-Media Literacy (“ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication”), and Cognitive Load Management (“ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques”). All of these are found in research skill development, a task which should be part of any university student’s education. (See also Craig D. Jerald, Defining a 21st Century Education (2009) [3].

Second, adult students are the most likely of all students to move directly from higher education into the workplace (if, indeed, they are not already in the workplace and studying part time). If the skills of today’s and tomorrow’s work environment demand the ability to do research (problem-solving with the aid of information), adult students, more than any other, need research skills. A good number of adult students are taking higher education specifically to upgrade their ability to function in the new world of work. To deprive them of an opportunity to learn how to do research well is to put an obstacle in the way of their ability to meet their educational goals.

Third, the practices of problem identification, enlistment of appropriate information, evaluation of that information and the use of information resources to solve problems are at the heart of critical thinking. They represent abilities treasured in any workplace except the most mundane. They are skills that are adaptable to many settings and represent a mindset that enables today’s employees to function well with the demands of the information age.

Do adult students need to become skilled researchers? The answer is an emphatic “Yes.”




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