Critical Thinking and Academic Research

As a teaching and reference librarian, I spend a good portion of my time helping students with research assignments. While I frequently assist the students in my library sessions with pragmatic concerns such as figuring out the best database to use or the most appropriate search terms to enter, I also encourage them to reflect on the research process itself and what they might bring to that process as creative critical thinkers.

We’ll often discuss various ways of defining “research,” ranging from more practical and concrete definitions (collecting information on a topic, finding evidence to support an argument, etc.) to those that are more abstract and conceptual (creating new knowledge, participating actively in an ongoing scholarly “conversation,” etc.). During such discussions, I ultimately try to stress critical inquiry—a process of asking thoughtful questions about the world and exploring potential answers—as the driving force of academic research.

Good researchers in all disciplines pose questions that genuinely interest them (and hopefully others as well) and then attempt to answer their questions through data collection and analysis of some sort. Research is not simply about compiling, organizing, and presenting information; rather, it involves the use of information to make interpretations, critique assumptions, draw conclusions, and so on. The researcher is not a passive spectator of preexisting information but an active participant in an evolving process, engaging in the intellectual practices we associate with critical thinking. This is the kind of mindset that I hope the students I work with will adopt as they conduct research.

Librarians who teach in our Information Literacy Program work to foster critical thinking in research through class discussions and active learning exercises. Where possible, we emphasize the importance of thinking critically about individual sources and the larger information landscape, as opposed to the need to master any one search engine, database, or catalog. Even when teaching basic search skills, we try to do so in the context of critical thinking.

We have also developed an online guide that explains aspects of the academic research process through the lens of the Paul-Elder framework for critical thinking. This framework is a major component of UofL’s Ideas to Action (i2a) quality enhancement plan for improving undergraduate learning. We hope this guide will help students approach their research with a more critical mindset, as well as help teaching faculty consider possible ways of using the Paul-Elder framework to contextualize research assignments in their classes.

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