More from Project Information Literacy: “the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency”

Back in April, I wrote a long post titled “I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling in this casino…” about Project Information Literacy’s February 2009 report, “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say About Conducting Research in the Digital Age.” In my post I was somewhat snarky about the report, as you can see from this excerpt:

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.

This month Project Information Literacy released a new and more in-depth report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age”, and it offers some valuable insights and recommendations. Among the report’s conclusions:

When it came to everyday life research, nearly all of the respondents used Google, Wikipedia, and friends for finding context. Almost all of the students used course readings, [online] library resources, and public Internet sites such as Google and Wikipedia, when conducting course-related research—no matter… what resources they had at their disposal.

The relatively consistent pattern of information usage suggests that most students in our study favored a risk-averse and predictable information-seeking strategy. The student approach appears to be learned by rote and reliant on using a small set of resources nearly each and every time.

At the same time, the student approach may sometimes backfire. Using public sites on the Internet, such as Google search, early on, may be one reason why students reportedly find research frustrating in the digital age.

We have found studentsʼ frustrations and challenges involve narrowing down topics, finding relevant resources, sorting through too many results from online searches, and evaluating the credibility of what students choose to use. Still, almost all students used public Internet sites early on, despite their known limitations….

A significant majority of students in our sample–8 in 10–did not ever consult librarians for course-related research assignments. Instead, instructors played an important role in coaching students through the research process…

When it comes to finding information and conducting research, today’s students clearly favor brevity, consensus, and currency in the information sources they seek… [They] have defined their preferences for information sources in a world where credibility, veracity, and intellectual authority are less of a given–or even an expectation from students–with each passing day.

All in all, we are reminded of a comment from one student… about using books from the campus library: “Books, do I use them? Not really, they are antiquated interfaces. You have to look in an index, way in the back, and it’s not even hypertexted linked.”

Today’s students are not lazy or unthinking. This student, representing many, looks at information sources, systems, and services as to how well they meet his or her needs in terms of content, accessibility, and usefulness….

So students prefer to use web sources like Google and Wikipedia because they are fast, convenient, familiar, and produce results, meeting their needs for “content, accessibility, and usefulness.” Of all of the library resources provided to students, online scholarly research databases are used the most, as not only do instructors require their use to find credible content, but they are easy to search. Students aren’t using resources like books, even when they are better and more authoritative for academic research, because they take more time, thought, and effort to find and use, and they can’t be quickly and easily searched. This makes sense– today’s college students are digital natives.

I didn’t understand why so few students use librarians as a resource until I read about the “critical difference between the students’ approach and the librarians’ approach” to research:

“The library guide recommends beginning course-related research by using library resources to identify and narrow down a topic. These resources, the library catalog and periodical indices, are all vetted, credible, and authoritative. Only much later in the research process, and only after a topic has been safely nailed down, does the guide recommends turning to Internet resources, such as Google… The student approach is different… [They] reported using public Internet sources (i.e. Google and Wikipedia) in their initial stages of research for a variety of reasons, which included a belief that the Internet is an all-inclusive information resource… All in all, the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency. To that end, librarians suggest using scholarly resources, while many students in our study used a wide range of resources that deliver an abundance of results early on, whether they are scholarly or not. As a whole, the findings suggest that students in our sample favored sources for their brevity, consensus, and currency over other qualities and less so, for their scholarly authority.

At the end of the report, the authors make a series of recommendations, of which I thought these were particularly important:

Course-related research assignments should not indirectly encourage students to half-heartedly engage in a narrow exploration of the digital landscape (e.g., assignments that state requirements such as, “must use five sources cited in your paper”). Administrators, faculty, and librarians should examine whether research-based assignments result in opening studentsʼ minds to expand their information-gathering competencies. Instead, we recommend that students be given course-related research assignments that encourage the collection, analysis, and synthesis of multiple viewpoints from a variety of sources, so the transfer of information literacy and critical thinking competencies may be more actively called up, practiced, and learned by students…

Our work leads us to draw an important distinction between library services and library resources… For the most part, in our study, librarians were left out of the student research workflow, despite librariansʼ vast training and expertise in finding information. Librarians should systematically (not just anecdotally) examine the services they provide to students… Questions should be addressed about how and why services and resources are used—not only how often (e.g., circulation or reference desk statistics). Librarians may want to initiate their analysis by asking what percentage of their campus are using the library, for what particular resources or services, and why or why not?

So what do you think? How can we expand the minds and research methods of digital natives? We can’t convert all information to digital form, so are there ways to pry them away from their computers and into the stacks? Should we even try? Rather than trying to change the ways they do research, should we instead focus on teaching them to improve their web search skills and find and evaluate digital sources? Can we provide better or more authoritative alternatives to Wikipedia and Google, or make it easier to find academic sources with one search? How can we make academic research more interesting and creative for students?

I welcome your comments and ideas.

6 responses to “More from Project Information Literacy: “the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency”

  1. Okay, in the same vein of your original Casablanca, quip, I’d have to say, now, this looks like a beginning of a beautiful friendship…

    Seriously, thanks for the post about Project Information Literacy’s newest report. I appreciate your careful read of our work and the questions you raise at the end of the post!

    – Alison

  2. Perfect timing, Lisa! I will enter the classroom in January to teach research writing after taking six years off. When I last taught this class, my syllabus did not include a policy on texting; my students sometimes used the internet, but didn’t rely too heavily on Google and Wikipedia because they just weren’t as pervasive as they are now; students didn’t want to bring laptops to class. It’s as if I’m entering a strange new world. But, in this new world, I will be using many of my “old” rules and resources, including requiring that the students not only speak with the wonderful librarians on campus but that they also get a certain percentage of their resources from journal, online, and book length texts. These articles will certainly help me as I try to mesh that old world with where I find my students in their digital one.

  3. I’m at university at he moment (Engineering) as a mature student, and a couple of things spring to mind when I read this:
    – I don’t see how Wikipedia is fundamentally different to past paper-based encyclopaedias such as Britannica. Students need an accessible way in to a subject, whether it’s via text book or other course materials, Internet, or whatever. Just as long as they learn to go beyond those sources.
    – the Library at my university is by far the busiest building, and students are definitely using books! In some cases we have actually been told that we must cite books and limit our use of online resources – which doesn’t seem to generate complaints.
    – there are already major online resources that can be searched, such as JSTOR, thankfully.

    I’m not doing anything in the Humanities, something for which I am grateful, since I imagine I would suffocate under the weight of all that has been written on the subjects already. Do you really expect anything genuinely original to come from undergraduates, who are taking their first steps down an extremely well-trodden road? In the face of this, I would not be so sniffy about their use of the resources that are available to them – as long as they clearly understand that they have to consult original primary sources whenever possible, and can not stop at secondary or tertiary sources such as Wikipedia. This is true whether or not the sources are online, or made of dead trees. 8)

  4. The question I would ask is whether the reluctance of students to consult librarians is because the librarians have a different research strategy, or just because they prefer to interact with machines than people. Remember all those bad experiences you have had with “tech support”, “customer service” and the like?

    A couple of days ago I did an online survey for an airline. One of the questions it asked was whether I’d prefer to solve any problems with my reservation online or with a person. I thought it was an interesting question to ask, and having thought about it I opted for online.

  5. I think something that is overlooked in this discussion is how coursework has changed in a larger context. Supposedly, the purpose of education is to give a thorough grounding in the subjects studied, but this is directly undermined by the actions of educators.

    It’s only been a few years since I graduated, but I still recall being an undergraduate and having every class literally act as if they were the only one I was taking i.e. excessive work and/or unrealistic deadlines. There was literally not enough time to engage in any kind of rigorous research outside of what was required to get the work done on time and move on to the next task.

    Schools may vary their workload and work content, but if a student is in a situation where they must divide their time to a point where they cannot be thorough, then who can blame them for using sources based on speed and convenience over scholarly accuracy? There is little incentive to delve deeper into a subject if there is too much other work to be done and the current assignment does not require it. And as implied in another comment: no one expects anyone below a graduate student to come up with anything interesting, especially since they are in the shallow end of the knowledge pool for their subjects.

    Overall, I think the only way to encourage students to spend more time on scholarly research is to actually change the structure of the coursework. A costly and time-consuming endeavor to be sure, and one that is not likely to be approached anytime soon.

  6. I’ve been in scholarly research for 15 years, having just finished my PhD. I’m working in a quasi-library role now, and only now have aI realised that librarians think of themselves as resources for research advice… I never once thought of asking a librarian for help in my research & I never knew of any fellow students that did. If I wanted research advice I’d ask a specialist, like a lecturer or fellow student. I went to a library orientation once, and a librarian showed us a book that was some kind of index to research in our field; but I would never use anything like that – it would be a waste of time to read through all that stuff (thoroughness not a priority, as you said). Librarians are the people who stopped me photocopying what I needed, who made it clear how horrible I was for asking them to order something through interlibrary loan, who told me to go home at 6 pm when I had hours of work to do, who restricted me to 6 books on my desk when I needed 36, who only allowed me to access certain online resources while on campus, who kicked me out at lunch time, etc.; little of which was their fault, but they were the ones who imposed and enforced. They were border guards, policemen, hoarders; people to be strategically evaded in order to get done what I needed to get done.

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