From Library Babel Fish, November 1, 2010

Project Information Literacy has a new report out based on surveys of over 8,000 undergraduate students at 25 campuses, as well as some follow-up interviews. The findings are both cheering and sobering.

The good news is that students do look critically at their sources and have evaluation criteria that they apply to choose which sources to cite or to use in everyday life. They don’t take what they find online or in library databases at face value, and in addition to wanting a good grade, they place value on what they learn as they do research and on searching “comprehensively” – though what that means to them is different than it is to an expert.

The bad news is that they think there’s far too much information available and, as a result, narrow their options in rather mechanical ways. They limit what they look at to avoid being completely lost and overwhelmed. Very few students ask librarians “here’s my topic; where should I look?” Instead, they typically do what has worked before, hoping to gather usable results in the most time-efficient manner. This seems reasonable enough, yet it’s frustrating for librarians who would like students to choose wisely among the dozens of databases available rather than always using the same one simply because students know how it works and have gotten good sources from it in the past. They could turn to the most in-depth subject database . . . but risk getting completely out of their depth.

The study also confirmed something previous research has found: undergraduates have the greatest trouble at the start of their projects because they are often asked to write about topics they don’t know much about. They can’t form a clear focus until they’ve done a lot of scanning to figure out the landscape of the subject matter, and it’s hard to formulate a query because they don’t know what terms are relevant and may miss key words because they are phrases they’ve never heard.

For instructors, this may mean thinking hard about what the purpose of a research assignment is. Is it chiefly to expose students to disciplinary research traditions and tools, or is it to learn how to frame questions and seek evidence in ways that are transferable to other realms of knowledge? Both are valuable, but they are not the same. Ultimately, what will students know, be able to do, and value as a result of the experience? How can those learning goals be conveyed to students who may believe that research is a formally layered puree of other people’s words using the kitchen blender they learned how to use in high school?

For librarians, the implications are rather more stark. We tend to think more is always better, that helping students do research means exposing them to a huge banquet of options. The problem for undergraduates is not finding enough sources: it’s finding the right ones. The methods undergraduates have developed to reduce the aperture, to focus their attention to a manageable set of options, is a survival strategy that we should consider as we design library collections and instruction for this group of novice navigators. How do we guide them to the best sources when most of our efforts in developing collections has been to simply make them bigger?

We tend to either want to make undergraduates mini-professionals, trying on the jargon and tools of the discipline and mimicing scholarly discourse, or mini-librarians, harvesting and winnowing information like a pro. In fact, undergraduates are what we all are when faced with making sense of unfamiliar information: grasping for some method of finding significance in an abundance of options.

This study is particularly interesting read against dana boyd’s recent article in the Educause Review, “Streams of Content, Limited Attention.” She points out that our information landscape is changing radically and we haven’t figured out how to help our way. “Content creators are not going to be able to dictate the cultural norms just because they can make their content available” is a phrase that seems particularly apt to the current library situation. We can’t just provide content; we need to help novice researchers find the good stuff without resorting to rote routine or expecting them to simply search more databases more thoroughly. We need to question what life-long purpose learning to use academic content in academic libraries actually has. We need to ask ourselves what value academic inquiry has, period.

I have been thinking all day about a slightly sarcastic sign held up at Jon Stewart’s slightly sarcastic rally to “restore sanity.”

What do we want? Evidence-based change.

When do we want it? After peer review.

Maybe learning the value of evidence that has been formally tested – and is not just ingredients for a ritualized form of writing that only pertains to college – could be a step in the right direction.


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