NCEA - Catholic Distance Learning Network

Introduction to Student Research Frustrations, and Articulation of the nature and extent of the information base that exists in our disciplines



Many seminary students are frustrated from the outset of their studies. As hard as it may be to accept this, we, their professors, appear to be their biggest source of frustration. Their professors? Yes. The problem is that we have such an extensive knowledge set that many of our students are not only in awe of us, but find it impossible to conceive of a way to meet our expectations in their assignments. It is not necessarily that we are too demanding, but that students struggle to understand our expectations of them. Take the following standard research paper assignment:


Write a research paper of 3,000 words on one of the following topics.  Be sure to include a concise thesis statement, cover all relevant points of view, and demonstrate critical thinking.  Avoid merely summarizing the literature.  Include a table of contents and sufficient bibliography (including 5 journal articles, minimum) to support your arguments.


The following questions demonstrate the barriers to understanding which can expect:

  1. What’s a thesis statement?

  2. How can I determine what are the relevant points of view when I know little to nothing about any of the suggested topics?

  3. How, exactly, do I demonstrate critical thinking?  Can you give me some examples of what you want?

  4. If I’m not merely supposed to summarize the literature, what do you expect me to do?  Is this related the critical thinking requirement?

  5. What is sufficient bibliography? Five sources? No, wait, I’m supposed to have 5 journal articles, so you must want books too.  That makes it more than five.  How many sources do you want overall?

  6. What arguments am I supposed to be making?  About what?  Is that the critical thinking part?

  7. What format do you want for the paper?

Such questions demonstrate that students can often fail to grasp the intent of research papers, an intent which is in your mind but somehow has not been translated clearly enough into your assignment.  Thus the frustration, the longing that the professor would make the expectations clearer.


Over the next few weeks we will be walking ourselves through student research processes, processes which you may find strange and quite different from the way you do research.  Why would there be a disparity?  Simply because your students lack the sort disciplinary expertise that you have, expertise that allows you to take shortcuts in research. 


You, as someone with expertise, don’t need to consult reference sources to get a working knowledge of your topic.  You can delay formulating a research question or thesis statement because you understand how the discipline works and what is relevant or irrelevant to your research.  Your students do not have that luxury and must determine a goal (research question or thesis statement) very early in research in order to avoid spinning their wheels or reading a lot of irrelevant material.  You, the expert, can flit around through the literature.  Your students must follow a much more linear process, beginning with books, moving to journals, and so on, because they are much more likely to get lost if they don’t.  You can expertly mine footnotes and bibliographies, because you understand what you are working with.  Your students may also do some of that mining, but they need library catalogs and journal databases to get sufficient resources, because they do not have enough of a grasp of the literature to know how to ramble through the footnotes and bibliographies of key works to find further books and articles.


The activities below will address some of these struggles your students face.  For now, let’s continue to consider the necessity for disciplinary expertise, focusing on the nature and extent of the information base that exists within our disciplines.  This is a step beyond epistemology, moving into a descriptive and analytical walk through the actual knowledge of the discipline. Our intention is to look beyond mere content to the types of information available (including newer forms introduced by emerging technologies).  Here we need also to consider the quality control factors used with regard to production of information within your disciplinary tradition, including peer review of published works, and so on.  We need, further, to emphasize the significant voices in the discipline and demonstrate why they are considered more important than other voices.


Questions to ask:

  1. Reflect on the role of peer review as a means of traditional quality control in your discipline.  Is peer review working?  Are there legitimate voices that are being squeezed out of the publication stream by overly traditional or controlling review strategies?  You might consider the famous chapter by Brian Martin, “The Politics of Research,” in Brian Martin, Information Liberation. London: Freedom Press, 1998 (

  2. Consider whether or not you feel in tune with (or sympathetic to) newer forms of information production in your discipline (blogs, wikis, academic websites, posting of pre-publication papers for public review, and so on). Do you sometimes feel that the newer approaches to your disciplinary literature have left you behind or that they are not really needed because they are uniformly of lesser quality?

  3. Who are the major players (key authors historically and currently) that are moving your discipline forward?  What makes them major players?

  4. Imagine that you are a seminary student new to your discipline.  What barriers would you experience that would lead you to believe that you are not yet an insider in the discipline?


  1. Express in a post what information gaps in students’ understanding of “research” you observe in the Frustration video ( Having seen evidence from Teaching Research Processes that the same issues plague students even up to graduate level, what gaps have you observed in your own students?
  2. Offer a brief explanation of what you say to students about newer forms of information dissemination, including such controversial topics as use of websites and Wikipedia.  To what extend do you think your students understand the nature of the knowledge base for your discipline?
  3. Over the next three modules, you will have an opportunity to do research like a seminary student by identifying a topic in some seminary field in which you are not an expert. Thus, avoid your own discipline and seek another one. For this module, identify your topic that is not in your area of expertise and two sources of information (reference sources, online sources, not journal articles or whole books on the topic) that students could use to develop a working knowledge of the topic. Post the topic and the titles of the two sources of information. 
  4. Prepare a post (about 300 words) that summarizes the nature of the literature in your chosen field.  Include the following:

Last Updated February 15, 2018.  © Catholic Distance Learning Network.
"I'd always suspected that we were just teaching our students about our disciplines without ever inviting them to take ownership over them, but I always made a subconscious kind of excuse for my own complicity in that. This course in teaching research design calls all faculty to a higher standard on engaging students in how to enter into our disciplines." - Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, OP, Coordinator of the Catholic Distance Learning Network