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.


20 thoughts on “Academic Research A Painful Process For Students”

  1. This is a terrific project. We’ll have lots of useful information as it proceeds.

    Another interesting picture of how students perceive research can be found in the intro to The Subject is Research in which Jennie Nelson describes many years of research on this topic – it’s great to use with faculty because it’s so eye-opening.

  2. As one of the investigators on the project, I applaud you for zeroing in on some important findings.

    Yes – research is difficult.
    Yes – students find librarians are seen as helpful.
    Yes – librarians are not taking advantage of this and being more of an “information advisor.”

    I think we also underestimate the complexity of research and the time and effort to learn to do it effectively. Learning skills and concepts require concerted efforts, repetition, and reinforcement. Sometimes we try to “teach” too much in a given session or on a given assignment. We cram it all in and then wonder why the students don’t retain the learning. Having a consistent research framework and providing relatively short instructional sessions – preferably tied to specific assignments – is likely to be more effective.

    Also, librarians need to be on the “same page” – in providing advice and in instruction. Using the same terminology in instructional settings and one-on-one situations is also valuable.

    Bottom line – it’s a complex information world out there. Students are struggling. Librarians can help!

    Go for it!

  3. Steven, thanks for highlighting this fascinating research. This was especially interesting regarding Wikipedia:

    “It helps them grasp the topic, helped them with the language and provided context for their research.”

    This is a librarian’s dream come true–students using an encyclopedia to get context for their research.

  4. I don’t mean to be sarcastic but it seems to me the root problem stems from this statement:”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 in the “old’ days of print only resources, waiting 2-3 days before your project was due to even think about the project ,much less do the research, would instill in most students “angst”, “dread”, etc.

    I wouldn’twaste a great deal of time and effort over this if the majority of students wait until the last minute. The most helpful librarian in the universe couldn’t lessen their “angst”. This isn’t to say that I think Librarians can’t do more to assist students but really!!!

  5. David, I suspect that the waiting until 2-3 days before may well be a *product* of the angst rather than a producer of it. Procrastination is usually prolonged if you don’t know how to do something or don’t want to do it, or are frightened of doing it.

    I find it’s very helpful when a faculty member actually structures deadlines that mirror good practices for research throughout the course of a class. I did a session yesterday in which the students had already had a “topic conversation” with the faculty member prior to the class, and were due to turn in a proposed topic and beginning source list next week. All the subsequent steps were assigned, and it was clear the faculty member was working closely with the students every step of the way. I’m not surprised it was such a successful IL class; moreover, I had 2 students comment that they’d had other instruction before, but that this session was the most helpful they’d had. Now, maybe it was my superb teaching skills (!), but I rather suspect it had a lot to do with the fact that they had already been thinking about research in a guided fashion, and knew that they’d be supported every step of the way. Good anxiety reducers!

    I also made a point of saying that they would NOT “get it all” in the 55 minutes we had together, and handed out my card to encourage them to set appointments with me. Mike is right: we tend to understate the complexity of research, and we do a disservice to students whenever we imply that a tool or a service will “make research easy”. Make gathering information easy, perhaps; doing research –not so much! In fact, it could be that our multiplicity of databases, serials subscriptions, and Web sites is actually causing some of that anxiety; I seem to recall that there have been studies recently that imply that too many choices create anxiety rather than empowerment.

  6. This is why we try to get faculty to schedule library tutorials when the students are at the point of having chosen a topic, and starting to do research. That way, the materials they find are directly applicable to a current assignment.

    I agree with Marilyn that faculty are well served in teaching research step by step — defining a topic, then finding resources, outlining, writing, citations… Some of ours do this and others set students adrift with difficult, vaguely worded assignments.

    One problem I encounter in tutorial sessions is that students don’t understand that not every research topic is a good one. If they can’t find library materials on their initial topic, they tend to go to Internet sources rather than changing to a more valid (or at least more supported) topic. They also have trouble understanding that they CAN research a topic effectively even though there is no one specific book that sets out all of their desired answers in an easily digestible format. But — those kinds of challenges are what information literacy instruction is hopefully there to address.

  7. David, I’d encourage you to read the actual report. One very interesting finding was that students at large research universities, with large libraries, tended to procrastinate more than students at smaller schools with smaller libraries. The students with access to large collections had learned they could often find materials at the last minute, while students with smaller libraries knew they had to research ahead to use ILL.

  8. I really think this research has a lot of implications for reference, as much as it does instruction. This research sends a giant message to those folks who keep trumpeting “the reference desk is dead!” Actually it looks like it is needed more than ever. We can’t schedule instruction sessions for the class on the Sunday night before the paper is do, but we can have a librarian ready to help at that critical point of need.

  9. I agree with Sarah – this report does highlight the need for “just in time” reference, including virtual/IM reference.

    Another relatively easy to implement solution might be to use email to follow up on bibliographic instruction. If the thorough, hour long session early on in the semester is only helpful to the most motivated students, how about sending out a follow up email with a reminder link to select resources a week before the assignment is due – and perhaps another email with an abbreviated version 48 hours before?

  10. Interesting idea, Laura! I’ll have to think about that one, and how I’d schedule myself reminders of the various deadlines for all the classes I teach.

  11. As a Co-Author of the Project Information Literacy Progress Report, I do need to jump in and say “seems to” in the introduction of our report relates to students’ comments in discussion sessions, not ours. In the past, the challenge may have been to gain access to quality information, from what we heard. Today, it’s sifting through a lot more information and determining quality. Same desired ends, but different processes. Is today more difficult? Possibly. Students seem to think so. Thanks for taking the time to read our research and your interest in the study. Stay tuned!

  12. As it was mentioned:

    “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.”

    Is it that hard for students to actually take notes during an instructional session? This is similar to those students who start their research 2-3 days before it is due. Sure, librarians can always do more to reach students’ research needs, but where do we draw the line when they have poor study habits to begin with?

  13. Well this at least makes me feel a little better about myself. I’ve just begun to realize that I have practically no idea how to research a topic online, even though I’ve always thought of myself pretty tech-inclined. I’m lucky if I don’t have a lot of trouble finding anything relevant with Google.

    Can anybody in the know point me to some of the most common deep research starting points, besides Wikipedia and EBSCO (which I can’t access)? Thanks a lot!

  14. This is definitely a break through lessons to learn in this report. Professors, students and Liberians – must work collaboratively but proactively in order to help students achieve a desire outcome. Students feel good when they do well in a research paper.
    Professors take pride in their profession for providing academic guidance and reading their students excellent research papers. Liberians have a sense of fulfillment as information professionals for helping students find relevant and up to date information for students research papers. But these stakeholders will accomplish little or have less impact on the students they suppose to train professionally. As a student, I know that procrastination is one of the big problems that lead to students producing poor research papers.

    As much as students must avoid putting projects on hold until last minutes, professors must avoid assigning big research projects with a specific due date. Instead, break a project into sections with separate due dates but when after every part of the project is done ask students to collate it together. Liberians need to answer when students call on them and they must have a continuous workshop with students from time to time to inform them of the library services. We can only do better when we work collaboratively together as a university, as a faculty or as a department. This report surely serves as an eye opener to all stakeholders with regard to students academic success and integrity.

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