Study Hacks and Student Survival

I know it’s not true, but I feel like one of the only academic librarians who didn’t make the trip to Ohio last weekend! I’m looking forward to my fellow ACRLog bloggers recapping what inspired them, and I thought in the meantime I’d share something I learned from a past ACRL paper that has changed the way I introduce students to scholarly articles.

Margy MacMillan and Stephanie Rosenblatt’s 2015 paper is called “They’ve Found It. Can They Read It? Adding Academic Reading Strategies to Your IL Toolkit,” and it brought my attention to something I’d never noticed before, or perhaps had just gotten used to: scholarly literature is difficult for the new researcher, and yet most research papers require the use of scholarly articles, sometimes as the only permitted source.

I’ve also seen faculty forbid the use of reference books, at least as a source they can formally cite in their papers. This is unfortunate, since a subject encyclopedia is often the perfect source for a research paper in a general education course; the language is not so technical that it alienates the student, and the overview format ensures that the student understands the context of a topic. Turned away from subject encyclopedias and discouraged from using Wikipedia, students will develop their own research survival skills.

This brings me to the concept of study hacks. Buzzfeed, YouTube, and Instagram are popular sources for college survival tips and tricks, especially targeted to Generation Z readers. It’s interesting to read articles like this one from Buzzfeed or this reporting on Instagram how-to threads from the Atlantic. By reading the solutions this young-scholar community shares, I begin to understand what problems they experience and that gets me thinking about how I could help.

For example, I see college students on Twitter sharing this “hack”: If you want an article that is behind a paywall, just email the author and ask for a personal PDF copy. And as this tweet suggests, this strategy does seem supported by Twitter academics. But I can’t help but think, “What about interlibrary loan?” Personally reaching out to an author seems like so much more work to me than filling out an ILL form, but if students don’t see the usefulness or ease of our services, they will find their own means. I’m not going to warn students away from study hacks, because that’s like telling them not to use Google for research. It’s not realistic, and I can see the usefulness of their habits. Instead I will endeavor to pitch library services as their own kind of study hack, especially emphasizing how they can save a student’s time and sanity.

In fact, our friendly neighborhood blog coordinator Maura Smale addressed this in her ACRL paper this year: “Their strategies for understanding included searching for summaries online or using study guide websites like SparkNotes because “they break it down in a simple way.” Other students reported searching on YouTube, Google, and Google Scholar, as well as online (and offline) dictionaries for help with challenging reading.” These web tools might not seem as vetted as peer-reviewed research, but isn’t it better than a student having no idea what they’re quoting? Instead of telling them how they “should” conduct their research (pristinely, using only library resources, taking diligent notes, and using Zotero for every project), we should meet them where they are, and share healthy study behaviors in the name of “saving the time of the reader,” as Maura says.

MacMillan and Rosenblatt make a strong case for teaching students reading strategies, not only because the average student is not reading at the college level, but also because we are uniquely positioned to guide and encourage students in this area:

Not only is incorporating instruction on reading scholarly material our responsibility, but librarians, in many ways, are the people best equipped to do this. More than most faculty, our work requires us to read materials in other disciplines, whether it is to understand a new liaison area, develop a class, or assess materials for a collection. We are practiced in reading in fields that are new to us and likely more comfortable and accepting of it than others. This experience has given us strategies that we can pass on to students— novices in their own disciplines—to help them understand new jargon and unfamiliar information structures. We may also feel freer to criticize discourse in a discipline and to advocate for students against the incomprehensibility of densely-written articles.

At the very least, thinking about all this has made me compassionate for the students I encounter. Sometimes in the classroom I’ll ask something like, “How has reading scholarly research been for you so far?” and get shy silence until I add, “A little intimidating? Kind of dense?” The tension in the room immediately relaxes; we’re on the same side. From there I emphasize two things: 1) that academic research is not written for students in mind (we’re basically eavesdropping on a conversation at this stage), but 2) this gets easier with practice. You will learn the language of your major, and in the meantime, I’m here to give you strategies to get through this semester.

If you’re wondering, here are the strategies I now recommend:

  1. Read the abstract and conclusion first (your chance to make a “spoiler alert” joke that will only make the instructor laugh).
  2. Take notes as you read, even if that just means underlining parts you might want to use later.
  3. And finally, try to ask yourself what you specifically want out of a source. Looking for pieces of evidence rather filling a “2-5 reliable sources” quota makes it easier to read strategically.

Should I recommend these methods as “study hacks,” or will I sound like Steve Buscemi in a backwards hat saying “How do you do, fellow kids”? I don’t know, but finding new ways to explain intimidating academic concepts will always keep my brain busy at the desk.

4 thoughts on “Study Hacks and Student Survival”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Jennie — I also love that “Rate My Source” tutorial on your guide!

  2. I’m so glad to hear that you found my paper to be of use, Emily! And thanks for highlighting MacMillan and Rosenblatt’s paper — I can’t believe I missed that when I was doing my research, and will be sure to remedy that now.

  3. When an assignment is likely to lead students to articles about quantitative studies, I’ll tell them that as someone who is not especially fluent in mathematics, I look for the “Discussion” and “Conclusions” sections of an article in order to grasp the meaning. This post is a great reminder that I could do more to help, e.g., asking instructors if they are discussing reading strategies with their students. I’m inspired by the content on Jennie’s guide, too.

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