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Originally published April 24, 2009 at 2:43 PM | Page modified April 24, 2009 at 5:25 PM

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Guest Columnists | Add "research" to education's traditional three Rs

Though information is at the fingertips of modern college students and others, the ability to discern what is credible has never been more important. Guest columnists Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head suggest a fourth "R" — research — should be added to the traditional 3 Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Special to The Times

IN his Town Hall meeting March 26, President Obama urged Americans "to go after the high-skill, high-wage jobs of the future" rather than chase low-skill, low paying jobs, which are regularly shipped overseas. To nail those upper-end jobs, the president said, we must train people more effectively.

But how? Besides improving math and science instruction, what else must we do?

We need to add a new "R" — research — to the traditional three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic. We must also dedicate resources to make this kind of education occur. Students across the country need 21st-century research skills that include abilities to navigate large quantities of information and multiple technologies that deliver it. Students must also be able to evaluate and judge what is found.

As part of our ongoing research study, we talked with student groups last fall at seven U.S. colleges and universities, including the University of Washington, West Valley Community College in Saratoga, Calif., and Harvard University. We found that many college students struggle with research in the digital age, despite resources at their fingertips.

With the sheer volume of information available and the difficulty of determining what to believe, these students find research daunting. They often drown in copious and irrelevant data. They are frustrated about finding credible information not only for school assignments but everyday life.

The large majority of students we interviewed said they begin with Wikipedia, the vast, online peer-to-peer encyclopedia — despite professors' cautions about Wikipedia as an authoritative source. As one student put it, Wikipedia is ideal for "presearch," or big-picture background "in good English" before moving on to more serious research. Most students also said they don't tell their professors they use Wikipedia; they simply avoid citing it in their reports.

But we're not here to debate Wikipedia. We want students learning how to select the right sources and use them aware of limitations. Wikipedia, for example, may be suitable for presearch, but not for definitive judgments.

Learning these differences is essential in our digital world because so much of what's out there is flawed or incomplete.

Also, essential information skills encompass much more than simply selecting the right sources. Highly skilled workers know how to creatively outline a project, search for information, synthesize what's found and apply it.

In our study, we found that original, highly structured, problem-based research assignments encourage students to dig deeper. Such assignments might include real-world case studies, multimedia projects or team-based empirical research. They also demand far more of students than the classic term paper.

These highly-structured assignments stretch professors as well, encouraging them to teach research skills.

The results are graduates more capable of conducting research, applying information, and making more thoughtful, sophisticated judgments.

Just what those higher-skill, higher-paid jobs require.

Michael Eisenberg, left, is dean emeritus and professor at the University of Washington Information School. Alison J. Head is an affiliate assistant professor at the iSchool. Together, they direct Project Information Literacy, a national study about college students in the digital age. It's funded with a gift from ProQuest.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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