No Wonder Students Think It’s A Waste Of Time

Would you voluntarily submit to being instructed about a topic where you already consider yourself to qualify as an expert in that subject matter? If you did – or were forced to – you would probably find it incredibly boring or tune it out all together. Well, a new report may help to explain why some students react this way to the academic library’s information literacy education program. The annual ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology is a good indicator of the state of college students’ application of technology. The report provides insight into our students technology tools and their skill and comfort levels with different types of technology, and their preferences for learning technologies. The 2008 Study contains information of interest to academic librarians.

There’s a lot to learn from this document. For example, despite claims that students seeking information go everywhere but the library website, the ECAR Study suggests that’s not the case. In fact, there were three technologies that were most frequently used by many respondents. Two were spreadsheets and presentation software. The third was the library website. An average of 68% of students reported accessing the library website during the semester. That sounds encouraging, but without knowing more about what they are accessing the library website for I would withhold my excitement. Are we talking about just using the library catalog? Does that mean just going to the library home page to click on a link to a database? At what level of engagement are the students using the library’s website? Table 4-4 on page 47 tells us what Internet and technology activity in which students report they are engaged. Social networking sites and course management systems are heavily used (in the 80% range), contributing to blogs and wikis is less popular (in the 30% range) and virtual world activity is still quite low at only an 8% participation rate. That may help us make better sense of how we can get the most out of “being where the students are”.

In 2007 I wrote an article about what I called IAKT – I Already Know This – Syndrome [see: Stop IAKT Syndrome with Student Live Search Demos. Reference Services Review 35(1): 98-108, 2007.] At the time my IAKT theory was based mostly on my own observations and other anecdotal evidence. Now this ECAR report suggests there’s more to IAKT Syndrome than I thought. Here’s why. Students were asked to rate themselves when it comes to having the ability to search the Internet effectively and efficiently. I was not surprised to read that 80% of students stated they were effective and efficient Internet searchers. Almost half (46%) rate themselves very skilled and another third rate themselves as experts. These results held up through all age, gender and major groups. Now, does any librarian who has recently led an instruction session agree with this? When you see students working on search exercises in your instruction sessions would you agree that 80% of them are effective and efficient. They are if you ask them to find a list of green vegetables. But put their own research assignment in front of them and ask them to find a few scholarly articles – they’re not quite as good at that. As the report states:

Many educators believe that students’ perceptions about their net savviness are questionable. It is a do-it-yourself approach to information literacy; students rely on peers rather than library staff or faculty. And students may have excessive confidence because they are unaware of the complexities involved.

Well put! So is it any wonder that students tune out library instruction – if they attend these sessions at all. If they think they are already an expert or searching at a very skilled level why bother listening to some librarian drone on about boolean search operators. So what do we do about that? Obviously we should do all we can to get the students activated and involved in their own learning, make learning how to research as practice based as possible, and as I advocated in my IAKT article, challenge the students by having them share their search “expertise” with their fellow students. I’m not going to go on about what to do as you can read the vast number of articles in which academic librarians have shared their best techniques for engaged student instruction. In fact, figure 5-4 on page 66 reports that 80% of students like to learn with technology by running Internet searches or through programs they can control (video games, simulations, etc.). Great! That tells us something about the way they like to learn – lots of hands-on involvement. Now if we can just convince them that what we have to share is a technology worth learning.

I will just add that, as always, it’s crucial to get faculty involved. Surely they can’t believe that 80% of their students are great online researchers, and maybe we ought to share these ECAR results with them. They might just thank us for giving them a laugh. But once the laughter subsides let’s get down to brass tacks and collaboratively figure out how to, as the quote above suggests, help our students truly master the inherent complexities of academic research.