Daily Archives: February 18, 2009

Academic Research A Painful Process For Students

There’s a certain type of research that most academic librarians would be doing on their own campuses if they had the time and resources. That would be organizing student focus groups or even one-on-one conversations in order to gain better insights into how the students conduct their research. That might allow us to better understand how students approach research assignments and where they are most challenged. Aided by that information we could devise more effective methods of helping our students to develop the skills and confidence needed to conduct effective research. The title of this post tells you we have much work to do.

A new report from an organization that is trying to learn more about what it is like to be a college student in the digital age may provide the sort of information we need. Project Information Literacy is a national research study based in the University of Washington’s Information School. PIL seeks to understand how students conduct research for assignments and everyday needs. A desired outcome is to improve the transfer, teaching, learning and measurement of information literacy competencies. During the fall semester of 2008 PIL conducted 11 discussion groups on 7 college and university campuses. They talked with 86 full-time students in the humanities and social sciences. They collected these first-hand accounts from students about how they move through the research process, and the solutions they apply as they proceed. One significant finding from the report:

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…Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times

Perhaps it’s no wonder our students take the path of least resistance to their research. Not only is there more information than ever to search through, but navigating and organizing it is a real source of frustration for them. Heck, they are challenged to even get started on a research project.

Here are some observations from the authors of the report:

– The majority of the students we intereviewed did not start on an assignment – thinking about it, researching or writing – until two or three days before it was due.
– Even though students had the freedom to write on topics of their own choosing, the ability to choose a topic, itself, could be daunting. Many students reported they often had little or no idea how to choose, define and limit the scope of a topic. As one student said “I just didn’t know where to begin.”
– Students used words such as “angst”, “dread”, “anxious”, “stressed”, “disgusted”, “confused” and “overwhelmed” as the one word that describes their reaction to receiving a research assignment.
– Students at smaller, teaching focused institutions see their professors as more helpful with research assignments whereas students at research universities find their faculty harder to reach for help and less understanding.
– Students said they were overwhelmed by all the choices and in general have trouble finding what they are looking for, both online and in the library.
– Wikipedia is the go to resource for students. It helps them grasp the topic, helped them with the language and provided context for their research. What about the library’s databases? Too much too soon is the general consensus.

Academic librarians probably don’t find any of this particularly surprising. What may surprise them is that the students interviewed valued libraries. They view librarians as “navigational sources” and “information coaches” who are able to help with everything from refining thesis statements to making sense out of the library system. On the downside many participants considered formal library instruction of little value to them – not because it wasn’t helpful or informative but it was hard to recall what was learned when it was needed for an assignment.

Based on what I take away from this report I’m not even sure how I’d use it to improve academic library efforts to remedy what students experience as a painful process. It mostly reinforces what I’ve believed rather than what steps I can take to create change. Perhaps as a start it’s important just to know the extent of the problem we face. While it is also helpful to know that students view librarians as helpful, I get the impression far too many students choose Wikepedia and whatever it leads to over the library. Perhaps part of the problem is that we are not capitalizing on the student’s perception of the librarian as “information advisor”. Part of the problem may be that librarians standing behind desks are less approachable than those students know and with whom they’ve established an advisor-type relationship. After all, you don’t want to confide your need for help in just anyone – especially if the research activity is a sort of painful ordeal for you.

The next phase of PIL’s research will focus more on the design of our resources and how they enhance or detract from research experiences. That, I think, will be more helpful in our efforts to help students to achieve research success. Until then this report serves as a reminder to understand how overwhelming and intimidating a research assignment can be to a student – and that my library and its resources are more a part of the problem than the solution. Perhaps just being more empathetic may help me and others to build stronger relationships with and trust among our students.