What Can We Learn from “Lessons Learned”?

It has taken me way too long to get around to reading Project Information Literacy‘s progress report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in a Digital Age.” Some of the key findings from their survey of over 2,000 students:

–They spend a lot of time getting a grasp of context: the big picture, the words being used to describe what they’re investigating, what they’re supposed to produce as a finished product. (This, it seems to me, is particularly true of novice researchers – or any researcher who is investigating something they know little about.)

–They don’t report using searching Google as their first step in starting a research project; they consult course readings to get their grounding. (Google and Wikipedia come first for non-classroom research needs.)

–Most of them don’t seek help from librarians. They seek it from their professors. Only about 20% consult librarians, and that is most often for help with search terms and with finding full text sources already identified.

–They consistently use a limited number of sources and strategies based on what has worked before. In large part their problem isn’t finding sources, it’s limiting the number of sources available so they can complete a project.

–putting off research because of “library anxiety” seems to have been replaced by confident procrastination.

–In addition to Google, almost all students report using library databases. Databases are useful for locating credible sources, and credibility matters to them (though brevity is also appreciated); Google is helpful in understanding context and figuring out what those sources mean.

–Most students also consult the catalog as part of their research process.

–The traditional “research strategy” still found on some library websites – moving from general to specific by means of reference books, then books, then articles,then the web – bears no relationship to student research practices. (I can’t resist adding that I thought that “research strategy” was bogus twenty years ago.)

The authors raise some thought-provoking conclusions which mirror some of my concerns. Does the kind of work these students do using library resources contribute to life-long learning, or are they preforming tasks that will get them through college and then be abandoned? If they are taking their cues from faculty, shouldn’t we be sending cues to faculty? Maybe rather than providing library services most students find unimportant to them, we should spend more time working with their research mentors: their teachers.

More will be coming from this project – including an analysis of instructor assignments. Which reminds me – I’ll bet faculty would be interested in the findings of this survey. See if you can use a few nuggets from it to start a conversation.

photo courtesy of oceandesetoile and the Flickr Creative Commons pool.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

5 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from “Lessons Learned”?”

  1. I don’t mean to be self-serving here, but most of the problems identified in this study are directly addressed, with specific solutions, in _The Oxford Guide to Library Research_ (3rd ed.; Oxford U. Press, 2005). I agree that “getting the big picture” is a major problem–but it is one that is also solvable, relatively easily, as is the additional major problem (not mentioned above) of how to choose the right search terms. It’s also relatively easy to get students beyond the two or three sources they routinely use on their own–provided some instruction is given that addresses this concern.

  2. What I found interesting is that the title includes “digital” and the claim is made that this is increasingly important because there’s so much information, but the students are behaving exactly as they did before the Internet. The only difference is that they can procrastinate more comfortably now.

    On the other hand, if the students are only using three databases but they’re finding good sources (there’s a fair amount of overlap among them, and link resolvers mean you can use one but locate information from another) then I’m not sure this is a problem. If they’re writing a dissertation and only know one general database, that’s another matter, but an undergraduate who has six papers/presentations due in a matter of weeks is probably wise trying to find a process that works even if they don’t use the premier database for a topic.

    The Oxford Guide is very good. When planning a course for students planning to go to grad school I asked some faculty what they thought should be part of the syllabus and one (a historian) said he’d had an earlier edition of the book assigned in a graduate methods course and it was the first time he truly understood how libraries work.

  3. These Project Info Lit reports are so interesting. I’m not surprised either that students (still) put off research — even students who plan to go to graduate school (or eventually become librarians!) will occasionally have a course that they’re just not that interested in, and it’s hard to get motivated to do the work.

    But I’m mostly sure that I think that problems with the student research process are more important now that we’ve got the internet than in the past. I think it’s less about the absolute amount of information and more about access to it. It’s so easy to get to so much mediocre information on the internet. And while most students probably won’t be writing term papers after they graduate, they may need to find health information or accurate news.

    Of course, it’s hard to convince students that what we teach them in library sessions will be relevant to their real lives. I mention it in each class, but I’m not certain that it resonates with them yet (and maybe it can’t, at least for freshmen).

  4. I strongly believe information I need for a research should be taken from several sources. They can be Internet, Google, Libraries, coursebooks etc. This style of collecting information was chosen in order to get a impartial view on the topic. And the list of sources provided by our tutors is not always obligatory for me, I prefer consulting with librarians.
    Honestly speaking any coursework is based on a students personal opinion and findings. However the quality of those findings depends strongly on the quality of sources chosen for research.

  5. if the students are only using three databases but they’re finding good sources (there’s a fair amount of overlap among them, and link resolvers mean you can use one but locate information from another) then I’m not sure this is a problem.

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