Encyclopedias Aren’t Evil: Encouraging Students to Do Background Research
I realize you are teaching university-level students who will soon be in the workforce or moving on to graduate school. You want to make sure you expect high quality work that goes way beyond a sixth grade style report with facts pulled from a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I get that. Librarians are thrilled when you require students to use credible library resources. But. Think for a minute about what those are—or can be.
Imagine I asked you to write a paper about intradural extramedullary plasmacytoma in dogs. Where would you begin? Unless you’ve been to vet or medical school, you would most likely start by finding a definition and figuring out what it is—likely on the internet or in an encyclopedia or other reference source.
But what if I said you aren’t allowed to? You can only use peer-reviewed journal articles. Do you feel like you could navigate them and understand all the technical vocabulary needed to make sense of the topic enough to synthesize your own thoughts on it? As a seasoned researcher, you understand that you can look up definitions and background information on a topic to educate yourself, even if you aren’t allowed to cite that information in your paper. But students who are told they aren’t allowed to use these types of sources don’t think they can do that. And even if they aren’t told that, they might not realize they could or should. While they might not be researching plasmacytoma in dogs, their topic might be as foreign to them as this one is to you non-veterinarians.
We need to give students the tools to become seasoned researchers. So what can you do to balance encouraging background research with not letting students rely too heavily on reference sources? Teach them. Show them what types of information can be found in different sources and how/when they should be used. Enlist a librarian to help. The Bradshaw Library has a great deal of physical and electronic reference sources, including Credo Reference, which goes way beyond the basic encyclopedia with more than 900 general and subject-specific reference sources. Consult this resource guide or contact me or your subject librarian if you want to know more!