Friday, January 20, 2012

What College Students Can Teach High School Librarians About the Information-Seeking Process

On Tuesday, January 10, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Modeling the Information-Seeking Process of College Students, presented by Dr. Alison J.Head, Ph.D., Research Scientist, University of Washington's Information School, Fellow at The Berkman Center for Internet and Society and The Library Innovation Lab, Harvard University (2011-2012). Part of an ongoing lunch series that typically serves 20-30 faculty, registration for Dr. Head's session needed to be closed when numbers quickly reached the 200 mark. This is clearly an issue of great interest to academics, as well as school librarians.
Project Information Literacy is a national, ongoing, "large-scale study about early adults and their research habits." 11,000 students have been surveyed over past 4 years, across 41 campuses that include the Ivy league as well as community colleges. The study was designed to look at relationship between different kinds of schools and trends.

Mike Eisenberg, author of The Big Six, collaborated with Dr. Head on the study, and as part of their planning they reviewed the Big Six framework, asking "what was missing?" They realized that much of what we understand about young people and the inquiry process is observed. The project was constructed to try and see what was going on inside the heads of students, as they conducted research in the digital age.

How do they define and conceptualize both academic and everyday life research questions? The four takeaways will certainly resonate with high school librarians, and offer a lot to think about. Before jumping into the takeaways, researchers discovered that there were two, distinct scenarios for research.

One is course related research that has a defined timeline (due date) with clear parameters (rubrics and grades) and is finite. The other scenario is everyday life research that is often associated with risk, because it is open-ended with potentially high risk. Examples of real life search are pregnancy, Lyme disease, addiction, and other stress inducing problems and worries found in the young adult, college population. Real life research was overall, more stressful for students than academic research.

Takeaway 1:  
 Students say research is more difficult for them than ever before.

How can this be true? Librarians spend so much time organizing information for students! (More on this later.) Based on survey data, young adult students conduct research activities in four modes, or contexts.

Preliminary model - In search of context 
How do students conceptualize the research process? It is a cyclical process that applies to both academic and real life inquiry.

These four contexts are based on feedback from students at the start of a research activity.
  • Big Picture Context - Occurs at beginning of project and focuses on summary and background material, most often supplied by the professor. 
  • Information Gathering Context - Where do you find the information you need and how do you access it? All about finding accessing, and securing relevant sources. 
  • Language Context - Developing an understanding of the  meaning and relevance of words so search terms can be developed. This is when students are most likely to seek help from a librarian.
  • Situational Context - The expectations around the research activity, as provided by the professor.

Takeaway 2: 
Students turn to the same "tried and true" sources over and over again.

Students are creatures of habit.

Findings indicated this ranking of information sources:

  1. Course research 
  2. Course readings (Course readings are used by students for big picture AND situational context. It is foundational for responding to the research assignment. It is also perceived as a way to keep the professor happy.)
  3. Search engines including Google 
  4. Library databases 
  5. Instructors (Instructors are the go-to source for students. Not librarians.)
  6. Wikipedia

For access to all the data sets (and there is a lot of data!) Please visit Project Information Literacy.

The survey clearly shows that the student search process is a hybrid model of online sources and talking with people (instructors), but not librarians.

Everyday life research sources:

  1. Search engines including Google 
  2. Wikipedia 
  3. Friends/family 
  4. Personal collection 
  5. Government sites

Takeaway 3: 
Students use a strategy of predictability and efficiency

A way to deal with all the information out there

Students typically start a research project with an abundance of ideas. As they start their search, they will typically get frustrated by their failure to find sources, and begin simplifying their original idea, or dropping it in favor of a topic that is easier to search. "I'm always looking for a source that doesn't exist."

Student descriptors:

  • Risk-averse
  • Consistently choose to play it safe
  •  Self-taught
  • Independent 
  • Hyper-aware of currency - place value on the most recent information 
  • Rely on the design quality of a website as an evaluative tool 
  • Prefer to settle for getting through the assignment rather than engage in a deep learning experience
  • STUDENTS ARE APPLYING THE HIGH SCHOOL MODEL OF RESEARCH TO COLLEGE (In college students are not tracked and assessed through the research process as they are in high school. This works in high school, but by college there has been enough cognitive development that they should be evolving to a more sophisticated research methodology.)

What's the most difficult step in the research process?
Students report the following:

  • Getting started 84% 
  • Defining topics 66% 
  • Narrowing down tools 62% 
  • Sorting through irrelevant results 61%

Instructor materials are crucial for students, but course handouts fall short. Data on instructor handouts:
  • Students look to handouts for guidance in research, but the guidance is not there. Of the handouts surveyed, only 16% discussed what research meant. 
  • 6 in 10 handouts send students to library for book (place based, finite) 
  • Scant mention of plagiarism 18% - couched in terms of punishment 
  • Didn't provide much information gathering context 
  • Didn't guide students toward librarians
  •  Only 15% of handouts mentioned databases 
  • Stressed library resources over services (librarians as research experts/coaches/advisors)
Library Resources/Services - Students indicated the following as library resources/services they valued:
  • Library databases 
  • OPAC 
  • Library study areas 
  • Checking library shelves 
  • Use library cafe
(The following services were reported so infrequently that they are almost irrelevant.)

  • Ask librarian about library system 
  • Consult librarian about assignment 
  • Attend a non-credit training 
  • "ask a librarian " online 
The conclusion is that students use a model of efficiency based on the Rule of 3: findable, full-text, and free. They also tend to load up on sources while they are still defining their topic.

This is a nice little YouTube video: PILInfoLit Dialog, No. 1: Wikipedia

Takeaway 4: 
Research and finding and using information are different than when you were in college.

As school librarians, we know this, but many instructors do not. There is a staggering amount of information, and search can be an overwhelming task. The search environment has also been complicated for students in new ways.

  • Connectivity - always on, always notifying 
  • Web 2.0 culture pervades, "let's share" 
  • Expectation from information has changed 
  • Students are turning to libraries to escape their own tech environments

A final quote from a student in the study:

"Books, do I use them? Not really, they are antiquated interface. You have to look in the index, way in the back, and it is not even hyperlinked."

I recognize these students. They are sitting in our library right now. My job is to send them off to college, and life, with the skills to conduct inquiry with confidence. I want them to be able to pursue their questions with resilience and perseverance.  I also want them to be the outliers who ask a librarian for help when needed. (And for there to be a qualified, certified librarian at the desk to help when my student shows up.)

Thank you to The Berkman Center for Internet & Society for issuing an open invitation to this fascinating event. The chicken burrito was delicious, too!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stunning story there. What occurred after? Good luck!
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October 14, 2012 at 12:44 AM  

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