By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, at American Public University
Faculty members struggle to teach today’s college students how to write a research paper. As part of the daily experience in mentoring and coaching students in proper writing techniques, instructors must also explain to students how to search for and use primary or secondary sources of information.
This is especially true for research method-based courses such as BUSN501, Critical Thinking and Digital Literacy. Such courses are standard fare as students work their way up the academic ladder from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree or a doctorate program.
Collecting data is part of what we do in classes from grade school to a doctoral program. How to collect data and what that data means takes on different meanings along that educational journey.
Make Primary Data Collection Entertaining for Students
In a high school logistics class that I guest taught during 2016, I had a group of junior and senior students go on a field trip. We stood by the side of the road, each of us holding with a clipboard. For 30 minutes, we counted the number of delivery trucks passing by on a four-lane, east-west road.
I asked each student to count only the number of trucks going west, which was our side of the street. The students also had to write down the transportation company’s name from the side of the truck. This was an individual effort, not a group or team effort.
When we returned to the classroom, each student went to the whiteboard. They wrote their name at the top of a column, side by side, and entered the number of trucks they counted. Then each student listed the name of the trucks they’d counted.
This type of data is primary data. It is data that a student collected. By contrast, secondary data would be the above-mentioned data that I reported to you in this blog post, depending on how I decided to merge, average or display the data.
This results of this simple exercise surprised these primary data collectors. The numbers at the top of each name were not the same and the lists of truck company names were not the same either. Some students wrote the truck names differently: some abbreviated the name while others spelled the name incorrectly. Some students wrote the phone number of the truck company. The number of trucks varied from 33 to 37. This led to a discussion about the simple instructions to count the number of trucks going west and write down the name of the truck.
Differences Between Quantitative and Qualitative Data Collection
The methods of data collection for primary sources come in many forms. One method that we call the quantitative method is the example of counting truck traffic. You could also collect data by qualitative methods, such as asking insightful questions in a survey or discussion with other people.
For instance, you might ask those same high school students if they thought the instructions for their primary data collection were complete enough and why or why not. The answers could vary. The answers will be in the form of written statements by each student, from the faculty listening to the answers from each one or from the group of students answering all at once. The faculty would have to summarize in written terms the value of the answers provided. That is qualitative data collection.
Collecting Secondary Data Sources
In research, the collection of primary data for a college paper is time-consuming, so we usually ask students to search for and collect secondary source data.
A secondary source is a source such as the Department of Labor website, where data has been collected by many primary data collection methods and then aggregated to produce a summary or average number. You can trust a secondary source, but you have to have some trust that the data is actually correct.
You might know other methods of data collection, such as questionnaires or surveys. During 2016, you may have been part of telephone data collection processes concerning your political views regarding the political situation of the U.S. presidential election. Other possible methods are holding group or team sessions, where usually six to eight people address a question or give an opinion on some process or product. Similarly, anthropologists have used observation methods to determine human behavior in groups or as individuals.
Why Do We Teach Students about Primary and Secondary Data Sources?
The “so why do we do this?” question is most likely of interest to faculty who conduct research and write research papers for a living as a part of their academic performance. Professional scientists at companies such as RAND conduct primary data collection and write reports for the federal government. Scientists with pharmaceutical companies and engineers with oil companies all need primary data to make recommendations to their leadership regarding potential investments in new business ventures.
But the cost in time spent on primary data collection is much greater than if you find a secondary source of data. That is the beauty of the current world of Internet or Google searches for data, photos or anything else. When you type a search command into an Internet search engine or an online scholarly database, you quickly get the information you seek.
As a student, you take that data and write a short paper or research report for your instructor. If you cite your sources, that adds an element of believability to that data.
Determining if a Data Source Is Reliable
But how do you or anyone really know that the data returned from an Internet search is accurate? Often, students do not know or really care. They just need information to satisfy a research assignment to find some facts and write a short paper about what those facts might mean.
But there are data errors apparent in some secondary sources. One big red flag for faculty and students is the use of Wikipedia. That source is a treasure trove of instant secondary sources of information.
But Wikipedia is an open source website. Anyone can post facts, data or information that is not valid. So, if you see a Wikipedia source on your search engine results page, it is best to go to another source, such as a government database or a research report that has been professionally peer-reviewed.
Make Data Collection Fun and Memorable for Students
So what is the best way to teach primary data sources? Make it fun. Have your students count something from their homes, kids or kitchen pantries. Have them pour a bowl of Froot Loops and count the number of different colors of cereal in their breakfast bowls.
Make data collection a game. Make your students laugh a bit and you can then move onto the more structured definitions in the textbook on collecting data. They will remember the silly exercise, carrying it with them for life and into their next research paper.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a professor of transportation and logistics at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of Reverse Logistics Management and Transportation and Logistics Management. Prior to joining APU, Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His book, RFID Metrics, was published in 2007 by CRC Press and is in revision.