Reading Between the Assignment’s Lines

Project Information Literacy has a new study out that complements their earlier work. In the new study, PIL researchers collected and examined research assignment prompts to see how they guide students toward good sources, and discovered that … they don’t. That is, the assignments tend to be fairly specific about the surface features of what the finished product should look like, but offer little guidance on how to find and make choices among sources or what this kind of assignment is intended to achieve.

Another piece of the project involved interviewing faculty to tease out some of the thinking behind them, to see how faculty supplement assignment prompts with in-class instruction, and what issues they see students struggle with. While it was clear in the interviews that faculty are frustrated by students’ lack of preparation, and that they spend lots of time explaining how to carry out the task, the assignments themselves don’t address the problem.

PIL’s previous study of student experiences found that virtually all students use the Internet in their research, but very nearly all of them also use library databases. Not so many used books in their research. In contrast, of the assignment prompts analyzed in the study, 60% required or encouraged use of materials on the shelves in the library, 43% suggested that students use library databases (though few specified which ones would be most useful), and 26% suggested students might find good sources through the Web. Fifteen percent discouraged or forbade the use of Internet sources, and 10% specifically forbade the use of Wikipedia. The authors seem correct to describe the approach to research laid out in these assignments as “tradition bound” – not just in terms of where students were likely to find the appropriate sources, but in that 83% of the assignments asked students to write traditional research papers. (When collecting these prompts, the researchers asked for assignments that asked students to find and use sources; they didn’t ask for research paper assignments, but that seems to be the primary way faculty engage students in using sources.)

One final intriguing connection between the report on student practices and on assignments: few students turned to librarians for help with their research, though they did look to their teachers for guidance. And though the majority of assignments recommended students use print resources in the library, very few of them suggested consulting with a librarian.

Here’s the abstract:

A report of findings from a content analysis of 191 course-related research assignment handouts distributed to undergraduates on 28 college campuses across the U.S., as part of Project Information Literacy. A majority of handouts in the sample emphasized standards about the mechanics of compiling college research papers, more so than guiding students to finding and using sources for research. Most frequently, handouts advised students to use their campus library shelves and/or online library sources when conducting research for assignments, though most handouts lacked specific details about which of he library’s hundreds of databases to search. Few handouts advised students about using Internet sources, even though many of today’s students almost always integrate the Web into their research activities. Very few handouts recommended consulting a librarian about research assignments. Details about evaluating information, plagiarism, and instructor availability appeared in only a minority of the handouts analyzed. The findings suggest that handouts for academic research assignments provide students with more how-to procedures and conventions for preparing a final product for submission, than guidance about conducting research and finding and using information in the digital age.

There’s also a short video summarizing the results available as well as an interview with Andrea Lunsford, the goddess of writing instruction and a principal investigator behind the massive Stanford Study of Writing.

Note: edited to correct a few numbers that I’d reported incorrectly. (D’oh!)

photo courtesy of monica, nic

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.

3 thoughts on “Reading Between the Assignment’s Lines”

  1. Thanks for this, Barbara. PIL has come up with some really great information, and this latest report definitely provides some evidence to the idea that we need to be focusing instructional efforts on faculty and instructors, and not just students.

  2. Looks like there’s lots of really great data in this report, and released at the perfect time to help with planning for next semester’s faculty outreach. Thanks for posting this, Barbara.

  3. This report has a lot of really helpful information in it, and can certainly help us working with faculty. But so far (and I admit I could have missed it) I haven’t seen anything about it except in the library world. It would have more impact, it seems to me, if faculty saw articles about it in the things they read – it becomes a higher education/teaching issue, not a library issue. And those articles need to be written by faculty, not by librarians.

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