Expert Commentary

Research-based ideas for college campus reporting: Potential stories

Roundup of useful studies that can enhance campus-based stories and provide material for practicing knowledge-based reporting.


As journalism students look for deeper approaches to reporting on their campuses, they might consider the world of academic research, which can provide both fresh ideas and important perspectives. Sometimes studies are used directly by journalists in their stories; in other cases, they’re a way for reporters to educate themselves about issues and to locate and tap into networks of experts.

The habit of doing a “literature review” on issues is an increasingly important skill, but it takes time to master. The ability to do a successful literature review requires knowing which key databases to use and the basics of how to read statistics; learning how to do this on deadline can give journalists an important competitive advantage in the information and media marketplace.

Below are studies that can help facilitate deeper campus stories as well as enable journalists to practice engaging with primary research literature. If the full study is not immediately available online, ask a librarian for help with access and get familiar with your institution’s available databases. Also be sure to look at the citations in studies, as they will provide a road map to other important research in the field. To the extent you can, ask university officials for school-wide background data to help support your story and localize a given issue.

Finally, remember that this is just a representative batch of studies. Whether you’re writing about tuition increases, sexual assault policy, binge drinking, Greek life or flu outbreaks, there’s a wealth of deeper research just waiting for you at places such as Google Scholar and PubMed.

  1. Sexual assault and rape on campus: In light of recent revelations across the country — and a major push by the federal government to address the issue — it is well worth seeing how a given institution is addressing these issues and putting into place preventative measures and support systems. Students can review the latest research and data for context.
  2. Multitasking and learning: A 2012 study published in Computers & Education, “No A 4 U: The Relationship between Multitasking and Academic Performance,” examines how the use of Facebook — and engagement in other forms of digital activity — while trying to complete schoolwork was related to college students’ grade point averages. Is multitasking prevalent around your campus? Do students see downsides or upsides? How much do they reflect on their own study habits and use of time? How do faculty members feel about its role in the classroom?
  3. Jobs and their effects: Many researchers have studied the negative relationship between student work — both on and off campus — and the typical effects on learning. However, student work may have some under-appreciated, positive effects. A 2012 study in the Journal of College Student Development, “The Effects of Work on Leadership Development Among First-Year College Students,” looks at the lives of students earning their way through school. What percentage of students on your campus has jobs? How do they perceive the tension between work and learning? Do they believe there are hidden benefits?
  4. Diversity experiences: A 2011 study in the Review of Educational Research, “Promoting Participation in a Diverse Democracy: A Meta-Analysis of College Diversity Experiences and Civic Engagement,” examines earlier research to understand the relationship between diversity experiences and civic engagement in later life. The study provides insights into the kinds of diversity experiences that have the most meaningful impact in terms of lifetime development. How does your campus do on these issues? What is the breakdown between structured and unstructured diversity experiences, as the study defines them?
  5. Student debt: How students feel about rising debt levels has been a significant media topic in recent years. But how do students on campus feel that it’s influencing choices of majors and classes — and career choices? Two studies can help inform this reporting: a 2012 study from Harvard University and the University of Virginia,“Student Loans: Do College Students Borrow Too Much — or Not Enough?”; and a 2011 study from the University of California-Berkeley and Princeton University, “Constrained After College: Student Loans and Early-Career Occupational Choices.”
  6. Exam habits: Students have many time-honored techniques for studying, but some methods are much more effective than others, according to the latest research. A 2012 study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” rated the utility of 10 specific methods based on cognitive and educational psychology research. How do students on your campus study for exams? Who taught them the techniques they use — high school teachers, peers, parents? Is the campus faculty doing enough to teach effective learning?
  7. Research and online skills: A 2012 report from Project Information Literacy, “Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace,” seeks to better understand the needs of professional employers and the research skills and habits young people use on the job. The study finds that students often lack certain skills, and rely too much on the Internet. How do students on your campus find information? What do the faculty and librarians think about the information-seeking skills of the students they see? Is your institution doing enough to prepare students for the needs of the workplace in an information-based economy?
  8. LGBT student views: A 2012 study published in the Journal of School Violence, “The Effect of Negative School Climate on Academic Outcomes for LGBT Youth and the Role of In-School Supports,”  analyzes survey data relating to a sample of 5,730 LGBT students between the ages of 13 and 21 who had attended secondary schools in the United States. How do LGBT students compare their high school and college experiences? How do the academic climates compare? How do LGBT students feel their secondary school experiences inform their current lives and views?
  9. Women and campus politics: According to survey data, American women consistently score lower on questions of political knowledge than do men. This difference makes women less likely to vote, run for office or communicate with their elected representatives. A study published in the journal Political Behavior,“Gender Differences in Political Knowledge: Distinguishing Characteristics-Based and Returns-Based Differences,” analyzes data in the United States from 1992 to 2004 to try to isolate the underlying causes of this male-female split. How are women faring in campus politics and student government? Are there enough outlets for political discussion? How many women would consider running for political office? How many female majors are there in the political science and government departments? Is the campus doing enough to educate and encourage women leaders?
  10. Rural and non-rural students: One often-hidden dimension of campus diversity is the rural/urban/suburban split among students. A 2012 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Rural-Nonrural Disparities in Postsecondary Educational Attainment Revisited,” examined data on approximately 9,000 students and found some notable differences. How comfortable do students from rural backgrounds feel on your campus? What has their experience been like and how do they believe it is different? Do they feel sufficiently supported?
  11. Taking time off: A 2010 study published in the American Educational Research Journal, “Male and Female Pathways through Four-Year Colleges: Disruption and Sex Stratification in Higher Education,” tracked academic performance, financial aid support, prior high school experiences and life choices to determine why students choose nontraditional education pathways. How many students take semesters off? Why do they do this? Do they see drawbacks or benefits? Is there a gender, socio-economic or racial dimension evident in the patterns on your campus?

 Tags: training, youth

About The Author