Beware Of Overconfidence

I hope you took some time to take a look at the latest ECAR report on undergraduates and their use of and attitudes about technology. In addition to Barbara’s post and some good discussion over at COLLIB-L, I commented (on the discussion list) that I had brought up some of the same issues in my ACRLog post about the 2008 ECAR study, and that not much has seemed to change in two areas: (1) student use of the library website and (2) students self-reporting high levels of research and information evaluation skills.

Students reporting they have outstanding research skills is nothing particularly new, and it certainly shouldn’t surprise us because having an exaggerated sense of your own capabilities is just one more innate human failing. I recall a small study I performed for a research methods course I was taking in 1993 or so. At the time I was working at a library where we allowed students to search Dialog using the classroom instruction program. Now you would probably agree that searching Dialog is just a bit more difficult than searching the Web. But in a survey of students who used Dialog at least once a week, approximately 90% reported that their search skills were as good as or better than those of professional librarians. They either had a highly inflated sense of their own skills or they severely underestimated just how skilled the librarians were at searching Dialog. As part of the research project I had the students and librarians conduct the same searches, and the students came not even remotely close to doing as well as the librarians. But in their minds, the students thought they were just as good or better.

Part of the problem that afflicts all of us is a bad case of overconfidence. Maybe, just maybe, do you think that the economic collapse of 2008 may have been caused by a slight case of some financial gurus being overconfident in their ability to maintain control over a complex mix of investment and economic risks, as well as totally unpredictable human behavior. In fact, some recent research indicates that many high-profile disasters (think world wars, Vietnam, Hurricane Katrina, etc.) can be blamed on human overconfidence. You probably see this all the time. In almost any survey in which people judge their abilities, say on a scale of 1 to 10, everyone is above average. At a presentation I attended some years ago, the speaker shared the results of studies that suggested you could predict in advance that anytime people were asked to rate themselves on anything (e.g., how well do you drive) the mean would be 7.7 – and that it was statistically impossible for that many people to be above average. If we’re all above average drivers who is that person making a right-hand turn from the left lane?

But here’s the funny thing about overconfidence. Despite the inherent risks of overestimating your abilities at just about anything – and when students overestimate the quality of their research skills they can turn in a pretty dismal final product – the researchers who studied overconfidence believe there is a clear advantage to being overconfident. Not surprisingly you’ll find others who don’t see it this way, such as this NYT op-ed columnist who points out that government overconfidence is to blame for misguided thinking in the current handling of the executive compensation mess. Overconfident individuals, suggest the researchers, are likely to have a clear competitive advantage over ordinary individuals. “Overconfidence boosts ambition, resolve, morale and persistence…and the greater the risk the more overconfident individuals become.” That doesn’t sound like such a good thing to me.

Despite what the researchers have to say, I’m going to come down on the side of advocating we should beware of overconfidence, both in ourselves and our students. I don’t know to what extent it might be helpful to share the ECAR study’s relevant results with our students. Perhaps it never helps to try to warn someone of the dangers of being overconfident; we just can ‘t seem to help ourselves. But I do think it would benefit us professionally to be mindful of our own flaws when it comes to being overconfident. In Jim Collins’ latest book, How the Mighty Fall, he profiles companies that were at the top of their industries but subsequently went through the five stages of decline. Some were able to recover before becoming completely obsolete. In nearly all the cases the decline begins with overconfidence, too much risk taking, resting on one’s past accomplishments and thinking they could do nothing wrong. Did we academic librarians become overconfident about the ongoing loyalty of our user community? Did our overconfidence blind us to the almost certain likelihood that our users would become more enamored with search engines than what we had to offer them? Looking back at how academic libraries transformed from having a near monopoly on providing access to information for their communities to a state where we are now just one possible resource among many, and quite possibly not even the most valued resource, we may have allowed our overconfidence to lead us into thinking that our user community members would always be loyal to us and value our resources over all others. That’s not how it turned out and we paid the price. At one time few academic administrators or faculty would have questioned the need for an academic library. Now we find ourselves having to justify our right to exist.

So the next time you are asked to rate yourself on anything, or to rate your library’s importance to the user community be mindful of the dangers of overconfidence. Should you ask your students to rate themselves as information researchers – be prepared for some exaggeration. But as savvy academic librarians, I think we will find a way to turn it into a teachable moment.

No Joy In Research For The Spoiler Generation

If the term “spoiler” is unfamilar to you it probably reveals your generation. Same thing with the name J. J. Abrams. Let’s start with Abrams. He’s the hot writer/producer/director of the moment with shows like Alias, Lost and Fringe, and movies like Cloverfield and the new Star Trek. He also happens to be the guest editor of Wired’s (17.05) Mystery Issue, one that immerses the reader in puzzles, riddles and articles about mysterious matters. Yeah, he has a TED talk too – about mystery.

While I was vaguely familiar with the spoiler concept I never gave it much thought. Abrams’ article “The Magic of Mystery” in the Wired issue put it into a whole new perspective for me, especially as I try to understand the current student generation and their approach to academic research. Here is how Abrams describes the spoiler, but if you need more details you can find an explanation:

The spoiler: that piece of information meant to be kept secret, like the end of a movie or TV or novel. Spoilers give fans the answers they want, the resolution they crave…I completely understand the desire to find out behind-the-scenes details in a nanosecond.

But there’s a downside to spoilers, says Abrams, as you can imagine:

But the real damage isn’t so much that the secret gets out. It’s that the experience is destroyed.

We’ve heard so much about how our students take the path of least resistance when it comes to research. It’s about getting it done as fast as possible with as little real research as necessary. By enabling the rapid delivery of full-text content from a vast mix of resources, when just all right results requires little thought, our digital library environment provides exactly what a spoiler generation student needs. Getting right to the end without going through the process – and having no experience from which to learn. Abrams describes how he once use a “cheat” to beat a video game. He later regretted it because he realized he only cheated himself out of an experience one obtains only by going through the process. He writes:

Skipping ahead lessens the experience. Diminishes the joy. Makes the accomplishment that much duller…the Age of Immediacy has a meaningful downside. The point is, we should never underestimate process. The experience of the doing really is everything.

For Abrams, it is all about the mystery. He says it “demands that you stop and consider – or at the very least, slow down and discover”. Isn’t that what library research is supposed to be about? You begin with a question to which the answer is unknown or uncertain. You don’t know how it’s going to end. Then you go through a process to collect the information needed to answer the question and resolve the mystery. Just like a good puzzle, in research you need to assemble the pieces correctly to discover the big picture. How do you communicate the natural enjoyment and challenge of the research process to a generation raised on the pursuit of spoilers and cheats? Taking the time to learn to research and then go through the discovery process, they must conclude, is for fools and suckers only.

Fortunately we still find students who resist the temptation to just get to the end without having the experience. We had our annual library research prize ceremony last week. The three student winners demonstrated the capacity for amazing research that was built on painstaking hours with primary resources. All of them shared stories that expressed their great experiences using the library – and all of them were motivated to engage in the research process by faculty who sparked within them a thirst for discovery. One of the students announced that she was starting in an LIS program right after graduation. That’s like the icing on the cake for us librarians.

How might we use an understanding of the spoiler generation to our advantage? Two thoughts come to mind. First, it suggests academic librarians need to focus their efforts on figuring out why some students, like the research prize winners, get hooked on library research and what makes them passionate about the experience of the process. If we can distill that knowledge we may discover how to engage other students in ways that encourage them to step off the path of least resistance. How do we sell the research experience so that it makes going for the spoiler seem lame by comparison? But perhaps there’s a way to leverage the coolness of the spoiler. If you are a student with a research assignment you’ve got a great spoiler – a reference librarian or subject specialist. How do we sell ourselves as the ultimate research cheat? Of course, this approach only works if it’s really a way to get the students engaged in their own deeper research once exposed to the surface level of the process.

There may be something to this whole idea of the mystery. The academic library might just be the ultimate mystery box because there are so many answers hidden within that are waiting to be revealed. But it all comes back to seeking out the joy of experiencing the process of discovery. Finding the answers that resolve the mysteries must be perceived as a personal journey to understanding. Abrams ends his article with a great thought: The ending should be the end of that experience, not the experience itself. Now there’s an idea worth internalizing in our increasingly fast-paced, get-it-over-with-as-fast-as-possible world.

Another Story About Ignorant Students

One thing that anonymous academic librarian bloggers are good for is sharing stories about their “ignorant” students. It would be hard to imagine any academic blogger who goes by his or her real name relating anecdotes about encounters with such students or even referring to them as ignorant or stupid. For one thing, the incident could be identifiable and possibly tracked back to the individual involved – which could all be quite embarrassing to the individual and library – not unlike the recent case of the public librarian who wrote a book with thinly veiled stories about her library’s awful patrons (BTW she was fired). I just happened to come across a blog called “The Singing Librarian” which had a post titled “Librarians vs. Student Ignorance”.

Long story short, some students came to the reference desk (this happened to a colleague of SL) and said they couldn’t find any books on nursing in the library catalog. Turns out, upon librarian investigation, the students were spelling it “nersing”. Singing Librarian finds this and other incidents of student ignorance quite shocking. While he doesn’t use the term stupid or ignorant to describe the students, I detect a slight degree of contempt for these students who lack basic knowledge we should expect of an undergraduate – especially a student in a nursing course who can’t spell nursing. I may be wrong. Singing Librarian may be genuinely worried and rightfully points out that our jobs now extend into the teaching of basic knowledge that was somehow never taught in the primary grades. When I read this it reminded me of an email I received that was critical of my use of “dumber students” in the title a recent Blended Librarians webcast. I apparently offended another academic librarian for disrespecting our students. I responded that the title wasn’t a reflection of my thinking but rather of the conversation about this topic in academia as evidenced by a half-dozen books on the topic.

Like Singing Librarian many of us academic librarians are deeply concerned about the students we encounter who exhibit a real lack of basic knowledge, poor spelling or just the simple yet complete inability to articulate what they need (were we so much smarter at 18?). Whatever we do about or think of this situation we must all remember to treat our students with respect and courtesy. We must never blame them for what they don’t know. We must never refer to them as dumb, lazy, stupid or ignorant – at our conferences, when talking to our friends and families, in conversations with our colleagues or in our blogs – even the anonymous ones. All we can do is to try our best to help them achieve academic success. To do anything less, it seems to me, is a sign that it is time to find a new career.

Of course, I don’t doubt a few of you – as I did when I read this post – asked why our OPACs don’t have spellchecking (some actually do). These students would have never had the same problem with a Google search. Then again maybe failed OPAC searches present us with a reliable way to force students to come to the reference desk for help.

Sudden Thoughts and Second Thoughts

At Least This Professor Is Trying To Improve Student Research

The general reaction to this story is that the faculty member is making a big mistake by banning Google and Wikipedia from student research (at least in the freshman year). I admit that such a strategy is likely to turn out to be a losing proposition, but what I find refreshing is a faculty member who at least cares enough about the quality of student research to take a stand on the matter. Too many faculty simply pay too little attention to the need for students to develop effective research skills. So while we may not agree with some of this instructor’s approaches or practices, I think we should give some credit to this person for having the right intentions. That said, based on article I’m wondering if this faculty member has considered collaborating or working with librarians to enlist them in the effort. I guessing the answer is no.

Your Books Are Out And Anything That’s Electronic Is In

While reading this month’s issue of University Business I came across one IT person’s “What Out, What’s In” list for 2008. Under “What’s Out” I find “Library Stacks” and what’s replacing the stacks under the “What’s In” column? Just a few things such as collaboratories, eJournals, Wikipedia and Google. Well, that settles it. Out with all the books. Go use Wikipedia and Google everyone. Sheesh! This list is courtesy of John Bielec, the CIO at Drexel University. That institution has been moving towards a heavily e-based library for years. Looks like the VP for IT is hoping that 2008 is the year that most, if not all, of the books will finally be gone from the library.

I’m Just Passing This On – Come To Your Own Conclusion

Since I’ve been accused previously of being biased when presenting information about librarians and social networks, here’s an advance warning. This is the ONLY data I’ve seen recently related to librarians and social space integration. (A) I’m not surpressing other study data with different conclusions and (B) I’m not adding any comments to it – it means whatever you want it to mean. This comes from a study of student use of the library web site and other information resources produced at the University of Michigan:

A total of 23% of respondents stated that ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ they would be interested in contacting a librarian via these two social networking sites (MySpace and Facebook). Undergrads had a slightly higher than average percentage of 34%. Nearly half of the total respondents stated they would not be interested, but for various reasons – the biggest reason being that they feel the current methods (in-person, email, IM) are more than sufficient. 14% said no because they felt it was inappropriate or that Facebook is a social tool, not a research tool. Though this latter category does not represent a majority, these responses were the most emphatic

Well, I can’t resist one observation – 23% is better than I would have guessed, and is even potentially encouraging. You can read another summary of this data provided by Gerry. This might also be the first study I’ve seen where the students report using the library’s databases for starting their research as much as they do Google.

Here’s A Crazy Suggestion

Wouldn’t you agree that the librarian community played a significant role in Google’s rise to the top. After all, librarians were among the first to recognize Google’s uniqueness when it first appeared. We used it ourselves. We told our users and friends about it. We provided the word-of-mouth promotion that made Google what it is today. So my modest proposal is simply that we repeat history. Let’s pick another engine and make it even bigger than Google. I suggest we choose Search Wikia as our next great search engine. Why bother? Well, Search Wikia seems to have a nice community feel to it, and the search algorithm, if it works, could be quite effective. And, quite frankly, we need something else to talk about. How do we start the revolution? Tell someone about it today…and they’ll tell two people…and…