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Helping Adult Students Develop Research Skills for the Workplace

Encouraging adult students to develop strong research skills will prepare them to be productive problem solvers when they earn their degree and enter the job market. Photo by Maaz Ghani.

Some professors assume that learning research skills is essentially a short-term remedial task.  This is not only mistaken but constitutes an error of serious proportions.  We may define “research skills” as the ability to identify a problem, determine what sorts of informational resources are needed to respond to the problem, find those resources efficiently, evaluate the gathered information for quality and relevance, and use the information effectively to address the problem.  These are complex, higher order tasks that take extensive effort over time to develop well.  Teaching them is not remedial.

Given the fact that most university students are weak in research skills, what existing abilities do adult students have that can help them as they strive to become better researchers?  First, adult students, as opposed to younger students, have considerable life experience, so that fewer pieces of information are entirely foreign to them.  Adult students tend to have higher capacities for critical thinking.  And adult students tend to be better able to manage their time and stick to the research task.  Those are strong pluses.

So what do adult students need to learn?  We might see this as impossible to answer, since every subject discipline has its own goals and methods.  Yet there are some commonalities.  First, students need to be able to understand the nature of the information resources available to them in their disciplines, including increasing numbers of non-traditional resources like blogs, websites, and so on.  Second, they need to develop the skill of stating research problems clearly and concisely.  For example, instead of asking, “Are there ways to solve conflict problems in the workplace?” they would learn to ask a more specific question like, “How can company intranets in the _________ industry be better developed to provide opportunity for middle managers to cooperate in project management?”

Third, adult students need to be educated past rudimentary Google skills in using research databases of various types.  Many databases in use in academia and the workplace have sophisticated means to target the best information.  Students need to know how to identify and use advanced features of databases to find exactly what they need rather than settling for approximations.  Fourth, adult student critical thinking abilities need to be honed in realistic research situations.

To what end are research skills to be developed?  Not simply to help students write better research papers, but to teach them the problem-solving-with-information skills that they require in the workplace.  The extent to which our curricula are directly relevant to the workplace is one issue, but the extent to which our students have the research skills to take on the information and research needs of the workplace well regardless of its nature is, to my mind, the more important consideration.

How do we develop student research skills?  Not by sending them out of the classroom to do research assignments on their own with minimal guidance.  It is essential to help students develop research abilities in the classroom and through faceted assignments.  What are faceted assignments?  After providing guidance in class, the professor assigns each aspect of a research assignment – development of a research problem statement, location of relevant resources, evaluation of resources, and so on – as its own mini-assignment, which is graded promptly, with sufficient comments to enable students to revise and resubmit.  By the time the final research assignment is complete, it carries the benefit of a significant amount professorial mentoring.

If we do this often enough, and intentionally enough, we will create skilled researchers.