Students . . . and Research

Students and Research

Inside Higher Education recently reported on a two-year ethnographic study across five college campuses that looked at how students use their campus libraries in terms of research.  Working with two anthropologists, the librarians at these institutions interviewed and observed student researchers at work.  What they found is not surprising but troubling nonetheless: in short, as the IHE report put it, “their students’ research habits are worse than they thought.”

Students in this study did what most of our students do: relied on Google to a dramatic and often debilitating degree, usually without knowing how to limit a Google search or to use specific databases within Google.  Students also preferred the simplest databases and revealed that they didn’t understand search logic at all.  Today’s students, in short, “might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.”  According to one of the anthropologists working on the project, their findings explode “this myth of the ‘digital native.’  Just because you’ve grown up searching things in Google doesn’t mean you know how to sue Google as a good research tool.”

The study also revealed that students are confused and anxious about research:  ironically, they need research librarians more than ever, given the amount of information confront them.  Yet the students in this study showed “an almost complete lack of interest in seeking assistance from librarians during the search process.” 

As I said, I don’t think most writing teachers will be surprised at these findings, but they do underscore the need for writing courses that help students understand what research is and guide them through the process, including finding, evaluating, and integrating sources into their writing.  In fact, this seems like a major mandate for first year courses everywhere.  At my university, we are fortunate to have a close working relationship with the library: every first-year writing class is paired with a librarian, who prepares a workshop for students on the theme of the class and who consults with students online and during class visits.  Even so, our students struggle to master the arts of research in the digital age.  But we shouldn’t be expected to do all the teaching about research, and here the study is also revealing:  “unfortunately, professors are not necessarily any more knowledgeable about library resources than their students are,” they report!  On my campus, this rings true:  my colleagues who teach courses beyond the first year simply assume students know how to do research:  as with writing, they assign research but rarely teach it.

The results of this study (formally the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project, or ERIAL) suggest that we need to work with our colleagues across disciplines to raise awareness of student needs.  But it also suggests that, even as we move to engage students in engaging what many are calling the “new literacies” that we have an obligation to make sure they are also learning how to do the research that will allow them to write with knowledge and credibility in any medium or genre.

“What Students Don’t Know” can be found at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/08/22/erial_study_of_student_research_habits_at_illinois_university_libraries_reveals_alarmingly_poor_information_literacy_and_skills.  The reports of the study will be published in autumn 2011 by the American Library Association as “Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know.”