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

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.

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.