Moving Students Beyond “Good Enough”

ACRLog readers are probably familiar with the phrase “good enough is good enough”, particularly as it is applied to the student research environment. The phrase suggests that student research need only satisfy some vague level of accomplishment defined by acquiring the first available information acquired with a walk down the path of least resistance. In the past I’ve argued that we should hold our students accountable for more than just “good enough” and to engage them in learning how to accomplish high quality research. Advocates of the “good enough is good enough” school of thought see students as incapable of learning or simply unwilling to learn the skills needed to fine tune their information searches. The good enough crowd is willing to accept that the majority of students are just fine with instant gratification-style research.

At a recent meeting of librarians and educators one of the attendees expressed views about the “good enough” research method, and claimed it is now the defacto standard for research. I thought that was an interesting comment, and engaged this individual in conversation after the program session. It turned out to be a good conversation, and it gave me some new ways to look at this whole “good enough” school of thought. It wasn’t that my colleague thought students were incapable of achieving higher quality research – and readily admitted that faculty needed to establish high expectations for quality research from students. The problem as he saw it was that search engines and a host of socio-cultural factors have indelibly left their mark on student research behavior. Expecting more than good enough searching was simply unrealistic in our times.

Where we found some common ground was in agreeing that good enough research needed to be a starting – not ending – point on the path to higher quality research informed by critical thinking. The challenge is how to get students to move beyond their initial good enough research. Why not, we thought, take advantage of students’ own predilection towards learning in groups, sharing information with fellow students, and interest in generating content in communities. Might students, working in social communities be able to apply some form of “wisdom of the crowd” in improving their research? A possible model for this approach would be Nature’s experimental peer review model. This allows any author to have his or her manuscript posted on a public server where it is then open to comments (no anonymous comments are allowed). In this model, what might start out as good enough research could, through a community of comment, move to a higher level of research quality as well as act to weed out poor citations, questionable information and potential plagiarism.

What I’m thinking of isn’t available yet. But if someone can develop a tool to detect plagiarism in student papers, why not create a tool that detects citations that were taken off the first page of a search engine results, that shows when the percentage of cites from Wikepedia is greater than 50%, or other indicators that suggest a student took the research path of less resistance. Tools could be made available to allow students to help fellow students identify better resources, or that allow a faculty member to establish groups or teams that review everyone’s research. Not unlike information literacy, any initiative that involves improving student skills must happen collaboratively with faculty.

I think there may be some promise in tapping into the collective wisdom of students and applying it to research conducted for writing or other assignments. I’m sure there are faculty who already do something similar within a class by having students exchange papers for review and proofreading. What if we could develop a social system that operates on a larger scale to allow students to improve the quality of their research through a peer review process that helps them move their research from just “good enough” to “meets high expectations.” Now that’s a social network I would like to join.

12 thoughts on “Moving Students Beyond “Good Enough””

  1. Interesting theory, but I don’t think the technology has really had that effect. Many if not most students applied “good enough” standards before the Internet was invented.

    I think there are two reasons for this: one, they’re busy people. (Take a look at “Rebekah Nathan’s” book My Freshman Year for a sense of how busy. Those who have a test and two papers due in a week, work part time (or full time), sing in the choir and are members of three student groups (or have to care for children) have to figure out how to spread themselves thin enough. Most faculty members asked to write three papers in two weeks would be horrified. (Well, you could manage it, Steven, but not many could!) We set them up for “good enough.”

    Second, there’s usually an audience of one for student writing, and the rhetorical situation is both low-stakes and not intrinsically engaging. Write a paper about something a teeny potential audience knows about about and you don’t. That’s a reversal of a genuine writing sitation, where you have something to say to an audience that doesn’t already know it and might be persuaded to care. Only the highly motivated and/or talented student can overcome that.

    There are a couple of ways libraries could respond. One is to unpack the issues and sponsor good faculty development opportunities (maybe in concert with writing program faculty) that enable faculty to develop more meaningful research/writing situations. The other is to develop some information literacy programming around something other than the standard research assignment, helping people realize that finding good information (and creating it) matters by tying it to programs for service learning or social justice or civic engagement or… anything beyond an artificial audience of one. Because that’s the kind of information literacy people need every day.

    Making work public and shared doesn’t automatically make it better (as many blogging and wiki experiments with students has demonstrated) because it still doesn’t provide a real reason for writing. And the idea of having a machine chide students for using easy-to-find citations makes me break out in hives – but then, I’m violently allergic to Turnitin, too.

  2. Getting a student past “good enough” also requires two things: does it make sense, and why does it matter. Research is a transaction, much like a purchase at a store. Marketing companies spend billions of dollars every year attempting to explain their products and make them relevant in our lives.

    Why buy a more expensive brand when the store-brand will do?

    Unless students have a reason to do better, it will be difficult to insist they raise the bar.

  3. I taught a freshman class this semester, the basic ‘intro to college’ course, and for me, when grading their papers, I was much more interested in the context than the sources. I wanted them to frame their research into a meaningful and readable narrative.

    I think that being on the other side of the assignment was very helpful, that is, being an instructor. I’m starting to lean toward ‘good enough’ is good enough. It might depend on the discipline, but personally, I think applied communication skills (written and verbal) are bigger issues than research ability. I would want my employees to be able to write convincingly and to speak persuasively, rather than to be able to locate Elsevier journal articles. Don’t get me wrong, research is important, they should get the facts right and produce creditability and accurate work, but at the end of the day, I think there is more value in critical thinking than in creating fantastic bibliographies.

  4. We didn’t have a machine, but using real people to look at a sample of 400 student essays as part of a large assessment project, we figured out a way to document that students were doing “just good enough.” All of the students wrote an essay on the same topic (free speech on campus). We did a citation analysis to see what types of sources they cited. We noticed that around a dozen or so websites were cited by more than one student (virtually no books or articles were repeat citations). We ran several likely searches in Google using keywords from the essay prompt, and we discovered that the top nine repeated websites were all on the first page of Google results. You can see the results on page 7 of the report at

    I’ve reported this result to several faculty and administration members, as well as students in classes I teach. It is an eye-opener for both groups. But to take it further, and in agreement with Barbara, we need to work with faculty to create more meaningful assignments so that students can see how really good research can both improve their writing and communication skills (it’s a lot easier to write a good argument, for example, when you have coherent and relevant evidence) and serve a larger, often more practical, purpose.

  5. I have to agree with both Barbara and Brian on this one. From my not too distant undergrad years, I remember how busy I was. Though I was interested in my classes and their subjects, I just didn’t have to time to do entirely thorough research nor my best writing, even though I was more interested in the research process than some other students. Singing, playing intramurals, working 20 hours a week, and taking 4-5 classes were not easy to juggle.
    At the same time, in the years since being in school, I’ve come to appreciate Brian’s view of things. Critical thinking and writing skills really are vitally important in almost all post-college life paths, and though I am loathe to admit it, much more useful than the top research skills for most people.
    Being a librarian and something of a research addict, I am quite attached to mining sources to their fullest, and really getting into the process of searching for and evaluating information. But I realize that most people do not share my passion. They are quite happy with the admirable job that databases and Google do to bring applicable (though possibly not best nor exhaustive) sources to the fore.

  6. Thanks to everyone for adding to the conversation. I wouldn’t be surprised that a majority of the academic librarians out there have come to the conclusion that good enough is Ok for students. Barbara makes some good points about how basic student behavior hasn’t changed, but certainly access to the net has made satisficing for low quality information much easier. In the pre-web days, even if students did just good enough research, it was still likely to be of much better quality than what we see today. I’m glad that Wendy shared her interesting research project (hey – wouldn’t that have been a great guest post for ACRLog!), and it doesn’t surprise me that given a basic topic the majority of students will just take what shows up on Google’s first result screen. Using a second or third search engine hardly takes any effort at all, and they tend to have fairly different results show up on the first page (use for examples) but the results indicate that students won’t even go to that effort. We had a research project this semester where students were asked to evaluate a web site with information about a designer. More than 50% of the students used a wikipedia page for this assignment. They didn’t even bother to do a web search to locate a unique web site about the designer. As others pointed out, it may really depend on faculty raising their expectations for the quality of student research.

  7. You and I have had this debate before. I enjoyed your piece but I beleive you are over simplifying the view of “good enough” research. I have stated before that there are times when good enough is good enough. It all depends on the course and the context of the research. Writing a 2 page paper on a controversial topic for English 101 does not require nor is there a need for the student to spend time finding the “best” sources.

    Now if one of our nursing students decided to use just “good enough” research for a clinical paper, that would not work. Context is everything in this discussion.

  8. Bill Drew’s comment makes a lot of sense to me. I would suggest these disussions end up going around in circles because (in the interest of brevity, perhaps, or “good enough” pragmatism), writers don’t specify their assumptions, which they would need to do in any serious academic paper.

    When we talk about “good enough” research, do we have in mind the undergraduate doing an English 200 paper on a controversial topic, in which case her problem would be identifying the substantial ideas in an avalanche of repetitive dross, or a graduate student researching a very specific topic, in which case the issue is trying to locate very specific information by going through possibly many different databases with different terminology, after having carefully determined whiat information is actually needed. Very different issues.

    But maybe that’s what the culture of “good enough” and “scan quickly – don’t have time to linger and think things through” does to us all…

  9. I’ll jump back into the conversation to agree with Ann about specifying assumptions. I’ll try to be clearer about mine. I do think that scanning a few Google results isn’t good enough for an English 101 paper because of what it says about the thinking process that happened before the search. I often find that students use the first few results no matter what tool they use because they don’t think about what they (or their audience) needs to know. So they just cobble together whatever they find first. Good research is driven by curiosity and good questions. If students don’t really know what they are looking for (beyond a general topic), then how are they supposed to recognize what is good or good enough? And this is intimately connected to good writing and critical thinking. That’s why I personally spend most of my classroom time with students having conversations about questions.

  10. I guess that’s the challenging thing about “good enough”. It’s completely relative, and what concerns me Bill is that from a student’s perspective – even for a 2-page paper – what you think would be good enough could be very different from what a student thinks is good enough. Would using two wikipedia articles and commercial web site content be good enough for a two page paper on any topic? Perhaps by good enough you mean two or three articles from a quick and dirty search on a library database. That’s where faculty expectations come in. Perhaps it’s he or she who needs to set the standard for what is good enough for that assignment. The problem is that, too often, they do not.

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