I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling in this casino…

I recently read the February 2009 Project Information Literacy Progress Report from the Information School at the University of Washington, titled “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age.”

The goal of the project is to “understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and ‘everyday use’ and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency in the digital age.”

While I admire these goals and am obviously interested in the subject, I wasn’t surprised by the findings, and I found some of the quotes from students unintentionally funny.

The report begins by asking:

What is it like to be a college student in the digital age? In a world teeming with information technology and overflowing with access to data, how do students find the information they need? How do students conduct research for course-related assignments? How do they conduct research for use in their everyday lives? What frustrations and obstacles do they encounter? What strategies have students developed to meet their information needs?

Their conclusion?

So far, we have found that no matter where students are enrolled, no matter what information resources they may have at their disposal, and no matter how much time they have, the abundance of information technology and the proliferation of digital information resources make conducting research uniquely paradoxical: Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times… In general, students reported being challenged, confused, and frustrated by the research process, despite the convenience, relative ease, or ubiquity of the Internet. In our sessions, frustrations included the effects of information overload and being inundated with resources, but more. Participants also reported having particular difficulty traversing a vast and every-changing information landscape. Specifically, participants greatest challenges were related to finding the materials they desired, knew existed, and needed on a “just in time” basis.

Some specific findings:

  • Students treat everyday life research and course-related research differently, and they put a lot more time and effort into the former. “Students reported that searches for everyday life information could last for days, and were driven by curiosity, as students clicked on Google results or Wikipedia citations and unfolded layers of information.”
  • Students “reported almost twice as many frustrations, overall, with conducting course-related research than with everday life research, though the nature or type of participants’ frustrations had underlying similarities.” Everyday life frustrations included: too many results from a Google search and the need to sort through them; knowing the “answer” is online but not being able to find it; figuring out whether a source is credible; knowing that everything is not online; and never can find enough information on the obscure topic being searched. Course-related frustrations included: information overload; too much irrelevant information, can’t locate what is needed from online results; trying to find the “perfect” source; not knowing what to look for, yet still sifting through articles that might fit; trouble finding books needed on library shelves; and conducting research to meet another’s expectations.
  • Students begin their course-related research with Wikipedia. They begin their everyday life research with Google, followed by blogs and Wikipedia.
  • “The majority of the students we interviewed did not start on an assignment–thinking about it, researching, or writing–until two or three days before it was due.”

The study authors note that for students, conducting research “may feel a lot like being an inexperienced sailor heading directly into an oncoming wind, sails wildly flapping, and not being able to maneuver and get to a desired destination.” They believe this is because students are struggling to “find context,” and they go on to describe four types of context students seek: big picture; language, situational, information gathering.

But what do students do to find context? They use Wikipedia, despite its flaws and warnings from their professors. “We found the majority of students ignored the negatives and went to the site anyway. Most students depended on and used Wikipedia for information cited in papers, but just never included Wikipedia entries on their Works Cited page. In our sessions, students also discussed concerns over Wikipedia and accuracy. However, most participants believed that they, themselves, had the ability to discern the credibility of a Wikipedia source, based on their ‘gut level’ interpretation of Wikipedia’s rating system.”

Surely it isn’t a surprise that:

  • Students always procrastinate and are looking for quick and easy answers.
  • Students spend an unlimited amount of time and effort on things that interest them, but do the minimum necessary on academic assignments.
  • Students universally use the two tools that are the most convenient, familiar, and useful to them– Wikipedia and Google– and they will continue to do so regardless of what their professors say.
  • Students don’t know or haven’t been taught how to do research, think critically, find and evaluate sources (online and in the library), and efficiently sift through the overwhelming amount of available information to find what they need.

I wrote in my very first blog post, “Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.” Research also requires time and patience, but it is a skill that can be learned with a little knowledge and practice. However, research is much easier to do when motivated by a love of learning, intellectual curiosity, and passion for your subject, rather than obligation.  Even I don’t like researching subjects I find boring. So while we clearly need to teach students how to do research, we should also be giving them assignments that not only educate them, but also interest and inspire them.

A fascinating post last month in the blog In the Library with the Lead Pipe gave a librarian’s perspective on this, discussing some of the “questionable assignments” given to students by well-meaning faculty members:

Every semester there is at least one assignment that comes across my reference desk that makes me throw my hands up in exasperation (such as: a scavenger hunt that was written before we moved much of our content online or the requirement that the student must have at least one print source, library databases and ebooks do not count)…

We kept getting students who had the same (admirable) weekly assignment: find and read a newspaper article covering the event they were studying that week. The article (or possibly other primary source document) had to have been written during the time of the event and from the perspective of the people involved. We had been doing fine helping them find historical and foreign papers as needed, until they came to the Ottoman Empire. And it didn’t stop there. The class was a survey of world history. They continued to have topics that simply might not have ever been documented by the people involved, unlikely in newspaper article form, certainly not in English, and may not have ever been translated into English if it did manage to get written down and preserved. African events were also particularly difficult…

Scavenger hunt assignments are frustrating for everyone. Looking up trivia is not the same as conducting research and without a meaningful application of the process of using the library anything they learn through the scavenger hunt is less likely to stick…

Often the student, the faculty, or both don’t differentiate between the free web and resources that the library has purchased, but are available electronically…

Librarians are on the front lines of this battle, and both students and faculty would benefit from using them more as a resource.

It looks like I now have lots of subjects for future blog posts…

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