NCEA - Catholic Distance Learning Network

Teaching research processes in the classroom, and optimization of information finding tools in research



Instruction in research processes does not have to be an intrusion into the classroom but it can, in fact, become the part of the instructional foundation, especially if the professor embraces the concept of active, rather than passive, learning. Within existing models of active learning, however, not enough attention has been paid to how disciplines handle information. There is, also, a lack of perception that student information handling skills remain limited and haphazard without careful and extensive guidance. If students, indeed, are going to be active learners, with their professors providing the expertise of methodology rather than merely dumping content on them, students are going to have to know how to work with information effectively.  In the new classroom, professors will ask themselves and their students critical questions about the nature of information in their disciplines and about the ways in which skilled research processes are to be conceptualized.


These questions include: Why does this discipline exist? Where does its knowledge base come from? What must be included in this discipline’s knowledge base? How does this discipline determine which scholars will be its major players?  Why and how is academic discourse carried out as it is in this discipline? How does one formulate a viable research question or thesis in this discipline? How does one determine what sorts of data will be required to address the question or thesis? How does one best acquire the data, using tools that are usually electronic and often complex? Why does this discipline argue and use evidence as it does? What constitutes good evidence and what does not one evaluate and organize the evidence to help it address the research problem?


You could devote a lecture or two to these questions, but a stronger approach would include doing close readings of existing literature in class (focusing on epistemology and method of the authors) and developing modularized research projects that teach students through their own work in such a way that they acquire answers to these questions actively.


The previous week had us developing a research question or thesis as well as a preliminary outline, then doing a library catalog search.  This week’s assignments will have us searching journal databases.


Today’s research environment is profoundly electronic, from library catalogs to journal databases to e-content.  The tools to optimize searching for needed resources are complex, but it is possible to teach students how to use research databases to full advantage.  Focusing on this issue will also be of benefit to faculty, who often lack the time to learn the complexities of electronic finding tools.



  1.  Think about the assignments in your courses.  To what extent do they engage your students with the information base in your discipline?  How could a close reading assignment enable your students to engage with the methodology of a key writer in your discipline?  How would you shape a modular research assignment to enable your students to work effectively with the information base of your discipline?

  2. Identify a journal article or book chapter in your discipline for a close reading assignment.  Design a student assignment that calls on students to look at the methodology of the author (e.g. use of thesis statement, types of evidence included, types of rhetoric engaged to convince the reader, and so on). 
  3. Do searches on the research topic you began in the last lesson using the ATLA Religion Database and Catholic Periodical and Literature Index on your institutional library's database page. (Note that Catholic Periodical and Literature Index is now a part of ATLA.) Make use of both initial keyword searching and any subject heading refinement possible.  For information on how to do this effectively in ATLA, watch this video on ATLA Religion Database Basics (if needed, download and install Adobe Flash Player to view the video). If your topic is not found in religious or philosophical studies, locate different journal databases. List all the search terms you used, and indicate which were keywords and which were subject headings. Make sure you include full journal citations.  Post your lists.

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