Jean Donham, Ph. D.

Former College Librarian

"Reporting has masqueraded as researching for so long that the terms are used interchangeably."
(Gordon 1999)

Students’ Mental Models of Research

What mental model(s) do students have for the process of doing library research?

Assembly? Gather information from various sources and assemble it between an introduction and a conclusion.

Transfer? Take information from various sources and transfer it to a paper and on to a professor?

Copy-and-paste? Copy segments from various sources and paste them together into a new document.

When a student describes the research process in this way—is it research?

“I form an opinion—it is usually one of the first things I do—I think about my argument and then I go and start my research.” ~ Personal interview, Cornell student

What understanding of research do we want our students to have?

Research is seeking insights about authentic questions that matter to us and to others.

What are elements that help to engage students in authentic inquiry?

  • A genuine question:
    • Authentic: What does the student really wonder?
    • Unknown: The student does not already have answers to the question.
  • Curiosity/motivation to know more
    • Does the question matter to the student?
    • Does the question matter to anyone else?
    • What will the student gain as a result of pursuing the question?
  • A context of inquiry
    • Is the learning environment characterized by curiosity?
    • Are there social rewards for posing significant questions and seeking answers or insights?
    • Are experts available to engage students in substantive conversation about their questions?

Progressing Toward Authentic Inquiry

A Genuine Question

Informed questions and substantive questions emerge as a result of gaining substantial background and insight into a topic. Too often, we allow students to begin research before they have enough knowledge about a topic to engage substantively. Also, too often we send students into the journal literature when they need to gain more background knowledge. Possible strategies:

  • Design opportunities for students to have real-world experiences or observation opportunities that help them generate questions of substance.
  • Use the library’s Reference collection for background building.
  • Design preliminary assignments that ask students to read in subject encyclopedias and other reference tools to explore a topic before formulating a research question.
  • Provide opportunities for discussion of topics with peers to explore potential research questions.
  • Invite experts to provide background for students, in person or virtually.
  • Where appropriate, introduce students to quantitative data that can stimulate inquiry.


Curiosity can be contagious. Perhaps one of the most readily available strategies for engaging students in meaningful research is modeling. When instructors and librarians model behaviors associated with curiosity, students begin to see that research, while difficult, can be interesting and rewarding.

Research in motivation in the context of inquiry (Small 1998) suggests that these factors influence students’ motivation:

Curiosity: Has the student’s interest been aroused to generate curiosity?

Relevance: To what extent is the research relevant to the student’s academic interests or real world?

Confidence: To what extent does the student feel confident that he/she has the skills to succeed in the research task?

Satisfaction: How likely are satisfying consequences—e.g., approval, intrinsic satisfaction?


Telling is not teaching. Queries and information-seeking, reflection, discussion, analysis and synthesis characterize scholarship. Creating classrooms where these behaviors occur creates a context for posing substantive questions and pursuing information to inform us about our questions. Participation in the conversation by experts in the discipline and/or in the processes of research (e.g., Quantitative Reasoning and Writing Consultants or Consulting Librarians) can add value to the research experience. The social rewards for engagement in inquiry include affirmation by instructors and peers. Opportunities to publish findings to authentic audiences in print, online, or in scholarly presentations afford opportunities for students to experience the rewards inherent in the research process. Such fora can range from class programs to which select members of the campus community are invited to the annual college symposium, or even professional meetings where student work is welcomed. The creation of college web-based publications can provide another venue.

Authentic research communicated to authentic audiences provides students the opportunities to engage in the kind of learning experiences they should anticipate for a lifetime.


Gordon, Carol ( 1999). Students as Authentic Researchers; A New Prescription for the High School Research Assignment. School library Media Research Online v2 pages 1-21.

Small, Ruth V., Zakaria, Nasriah, El-Figuigul, Houria (2004). Motivational Aspects of Information Literacy Skills Instruction in Community College Libraries. College & Research Libraries v65 no2, pages 96-121.