6 Strategies to Develop Research Skills as an Online Student

As an undergraduate student in the early 1990s, I have vivid memories of my professors repeatedly demanding that I “cite my sources.” Students had a healthy fear of plagiarism instilled in them, coupled with a mandate to support original ideas through the authoritative writings of experts.

That was before the Internet – a time when students had to physically travel to the library, learn to check out books or photocopy journals, read them, incorporate salient quotations into homework assignments and term papers, and properly cite sources in the prescribed format. Things have certainly changed.

Online students now have oceans of information at their fingertips, a double-edged sword creating an information access-versus-quality conundrum. They are a population at special risk for drowning in the information ocean, misquoting sources, stating misinformation or failing to cite a source altogether.


Because online learners must literally engage course material on the Internet rather than in the physical classroom, it becomes all too easy to copy and paste an unsubstantiated factoid into a discussion forum or homework assignment without giving it rigorous scholarly consideration. The (mis)information superhighway, social media and unverified opinions published on the Web are just one click away from the online classroom.

6 Strategies to Develop Research Skills as an Online Student

The following six strategies can help online students produce stronger research.

1. Contact a librarian before getting stuck sifting through piles of online information: A 2016 Project Information Literacy found that only 9 percent of respondents cited librarians as a go-to learning source, while 88 percent said they relied mainly on search engines. Many university library websites have a librarian chat feature and other ways to remotely contact a librarian. Reaching out at the beginning of a project to clarify the topic, research questions, methodologies and best potential sources will make the research process and project better.

2. Consider that when in doubt, it’s wiser to over-cite sources than risk plagiarism: Many learning management systems employ plagiarism detection features that flag suspicious language for the instructor to further investigate. As a faculty member, I’m always happier to tell a student that a citation isn’t needed for a common fact, rather than wondering if I’m reading the student’s own words or those of someone else. Online students can use free plagiarism checkers such as PlagScan orGrammarly to ensure an assignment complies.

3. Use Google and Wikipedia at the beginning of a research process, not the end: The first few pages of search engine results are generally the most popular and commercial information sources, which aren’t necessarily the most scholarly or authoritative. It’s best to think of Wikipedia as a table of contents of popular sources about an idea rather than the single most definitive source. The links at the bottom of a Wikipedia entry are useful jumping-off points.

4. Don’t think that the Web is your only source of information: Online students can access premium databases that are not available to the public such as ProQuest, EBSCO, JSTOR, Naxos and Elsevier. These databases contain electronic access to published journals, magazines, newspapers, books, reports, documents, dissertations, image collections, films, videos, curated archives and audio recordings. The difference between searching these collections and the entire web is that these sources are peer-reviewed and under copyright, and do not contain commercial results.

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