Why Students Want Simplicity And Why It Fails Them When It Comes To Research

The research process, by its very nature, can be both complicated and complex. For students it presents a gap between the known and unknown. They get a research assignment, usually broadly defined by the instructor, and then need to identify a topic without necessarily knowing much of anything about the subject. Then to further complicate matters the student must navigate unfamiliar resources, perhaps encountering new and unusal concepts along the way. A defining quality of a complex problem is that right answers are not easily obtainable. Excepting those students who are passionate about the study matter and research project, most students would prefer to simplify their research as much as possible. The problem, as a new article points out, is that applying simple problem solving approaches to complex problems is a contextual error that will lead to failure. I think this theory may better inform us about why students take the path of least resistance for their academic research, than our usual beliefs that they are just lazy, have adapted to their instructors acceptance of “good enough” research or that the blame lies with us for serving up too complex search systems.

The Cynefin (pronounced Ku-Nev-In) Framework can help us understand why students apply simple approaches to complex problems, and how that is a formula for poor research results. Cynefin is a Welsh word that signifies the many factors in our environment and experience that influence us in ways we can never understand. A recent Harvard Business Review piece by David Snowden and Mary Boone explains how the Cynefin Framework can help us to better match our process for problem solving to the actual context of any particular problem. In other words, as a decision maker – and being an effective researcher requires the making of any number of decisions (what database to use, what search terms to use, which results to explore, etc.) – one must understand the very context of the situation in order to think clearly about developing the appropriate decision. In their November 2007 HBR article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” Snowden and Boone help us to understand how to make better decisions in multiple contexts. Some might call this situational leadership.

The four main contexts are simple, complicated, complex and chaotic, but here I’ll deal with just simplicity and complexity. Simple decisions have their place. It depends on the context of the problem situation. We resolve them by using patterns and processes that have delivered past success. In other words we approach simple problems by using personal best practices. The right answer is clear, evident and without dispute. There is no uncertainty. The danger lies in what the authors call “entrained thinking”. When managers and leaders approach a problem the natural reaction is to use familiar strategies and methods to seek the one right solution – the ones we have trained ourselves to use because they typically succeed. While those entrained methods may work well in simple contexts they may lead to disatrous results when the context is complex. The point of the article is that managers and leaders must first analyze the situation at hand to determine its true context, and then use decision-making strategies that effectively fit that context. In some situations that are extremely complex, the authors say that no leader may be able to devise an effective solution and that those involved in the situation must allow a solution to emerge. Great leaders recognize these dilemmas, and are able to construct the environment that generates discussion that leads to the generation of ideas.

Students come to our academic institutions after 15 or so years of research methods that may have always worked in their previous simple contexts. I need to know the names of Britanny Spears’ children…I use Google to find the answer. I need to know what year the War of 1812 started…I use Ask.com to find the answer. I need to know the reasons the American Revolution began…I use Wikipedia to find the answer. In these simple contexts there is always a right answer that can be easily obtained. If these strategies have served our students well, what do we think they’ll do when they get their first challenging research assignments? Right! They’ll apply their decision-making process that has previously led to great success. So what can we do about this? How can we help our students to understand that when it comes to college-level research they must first examine and understand the context of the decisions they will need to make before taking any action?

I propose that we add “identify and understand the context of the research problem and choose a decision-making style that matches that context” to that long list of information literacy skills that many of us list in some planning document. And it should be near the top of the list. There are times when a research question has but one correct answer and the simple context demands a simple research method. Go ahead and search Google. But when the research challenge is vague, involves uncertainty and requires navigating some complex issues, then students need to recognize it and overcome their temptation to seek out simple solutions. I’d like to think that if we can get students to think in terms of context it might help them to increase the effectiveness of their research skills. This skill could prove to be valuable for achieving academic success, but also for the many decisions our students will need to make in their post-college careers.