Searching for Context

Yesterday I attended Alison Head’s lecture “Searching for Context: Modeling the Information-Seeking Process of College Students” at the Berkman Center at Harvard. Head is affiliated with Project Information Literacy, and what she said about her research findings largely agreed with what I’d found through my User Instruction course last semester (though consulting the PIL reports would have been helpful at the time!).

Project Information Literacy (PIL) is an ongoing national study, including (so far) 11,000 students across 41 college campuses – community colleges as well as private and public four-year undergraduate institutions. Findings are not generalizable as the samples are voluntary, not random, but the methodology is sound (focus groups, surveys, content analysis, interviews) and the findings are certainly interesting.

Head’s presentation yesterday included four “takeaway points” from the PIL studies:

1. Students say research is more difficult for them now than ever before. Research – course-related and “everyday” – is a stressful process. Students must grasp the big picture, gather information, use appropriate language (search terms), and measure the information they find against their expectations. Unexpectedly, the PIL studies found that students were most likely to consult a librarian for help with search terms, rather than gathering information; also, the studies found that everyday, open-ended research questions were harder than research assignments.

2. Students turn to the same “tried and true” sources over and over again. Students use the same sources no matter what their contextual need is – whether it’s for an assignment or an everyday question, whether it’s for a science class or a literature class. Students reply on course readings first, then search engines, library databases, instructors, and Wikipedia; farther down the list is librarians. However, contrary to expectations, students use a hybrid model – they don’t search exclusively online, but also consult printed matter, teachers, and family and friends.

3. Students use a strategy of predictability and efficiency…as opposed to the librarian model of scholarly thoroughness. Students are risk-averse, preferring familiar resources, and placing a high value on currency (above other measures of quality, such as the publication, the author, etc.). Students say the most difficult step is getting started, then defining a topic, narrowing the topic, and sorting through irrelevant results. Seven out of ten students consulted Wikipedia, often as a “presearch” tool – to help with the big picture before really starting to research.

4. “Research and finding and using information is different than when you were in college.” Perhaps this was aimed at audience members who are no longer in their 20s; most everything Head described about PIL’s findings was relatively familiar to me. However, there has no doubt been rapid change: the amount of information available today is “staggering,” the level of connectivity is higher, there is a Web 2.0 culture of sharing, and expectations about information have changed. Group projects, for example, used to be objectionable to students because they did not want to share their work with others; today, group projects are still objectionable, but for different reasons – scheduling issues, personality conflicts, unequal contributions (not that these weren’t problems before as well).

To revisit takeaway #3 – this was much discussed in my User Instruction class last fall – librarians and faculty both can help alleviate student anxiety about research and improve their research strategies by providing clearer and more detailed guidelines in syllabi, assignment descriptions, and handouts. Head admitted that when she taught, she designed her syllabus largely based on that of her favorite professor at UC Berkeley; there is no class in a Ph.D. program where future professors learn how to craft syllabi and assignments.

On top of this, faculty tend to assume that students possess research skills already, when this is often not the case. High school research is different than college research, and students cannot learn all they need to know in one class session with a librarian during freshman year (some don’t even have the benefit of this). Ideally, professors’ assignment guidelines would include a description of what research means, how to do it, and what resources are available; they should point not just to library resources, but also to librarians. They should also discuss plagiarism – not just the standard warning that plagiarism is a punishable offense, but a description of what it is (it might seem obvious, but there are different levels – word-for-word copying, paraphrasing too closely, lack of attribution for others’ ideas).

Research does not have to be as stressful for students as it is. (Head gave an example of a professor who likened the research process to solving a mystery, complete with Sherlock Holmes analogy.) Librarians can reach out to both faculty and students; faculty can reevaluate their expectations of students’ research skills and craft their assignments accordingly; and of course, students can be more proactive in seeking help. But they’ll have to have a good reason to trade in their strategy of predictability and efficiency for a model of scholarly thoroughness.

Edited to add: There was an article on this topic in Inside Higher Ed in July 2010: “Assignments: Being Clear About What Matters,” by Barbara Fister.

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