The Citation Project that Rebecca Moore Howard and her colleagues are conducting has provided some interesting, and troubling, information about how student writers use research. One early finding, which I’ve written about earlier, is indicative: the great majority of student writers cite information only from the opening page or pages of a book or article. In addition, they tend to go from source to source, cherry-picking here and there, without a chance to engage the source deeply. The Citation Project team suggests that teachers of writing need to spend more time with students on the very basics of research, helping them understand how to read for information, even if quickly, and also how to follow what Chris Anson calls a “discovery thread.”
Now comes a study from a blog on Education Database Online (posted March 11, 2003), sent to me by Allison Morris, who helped to create the graphic containing the study’s findings (thank you Allison!). This study finds that the Web is both helping and hurting students as they go about research for their college assignments. Almost all students start their search on the Web, with 94% using Google or another search engine (though only 25% of them could conduct a “reasonably well executed Google search). Seventy-five percent use Wikipedia; 52% YouTube or other social media; 41 online Cliff Notes or Spark Notes. Only 12% reported going to a physical book.
Teachers report that online resources make much more information available to students, though many of them point out that the sheer volume of information can be “overwhelming.” In addition, teachers think the Net makes students “more self-sufficient researchers,” but they are aware of the pitfalls students encounter, especially when they depend solely on information online. The study’s overall advice? They offer three tips to students: search relevant terms, don’t multitask, and consult your librarian.
These are tips that every writing teacher I know agrees with. The old saying “garbage in, garbage out” still holds in the digital age: teaching students how to conduct an efficient, effective search with key terms is still something we need to take very seriously. So is alerting them to the dangers of multitasking (this study also found that students using computers in class opened 65 different screens during class, most of which were unrelated to the subject); so far, the research seems pretty unanimous that humans simply can’t do three or four things at once and do them with any facility at all. About librarians, this graphic says “they know about more than just books. Your librarian can direct you to helpful online sources.” Amen. At my university, students shy away from the library and librarians, preferring to go it alone, with the help of Google. Unless we teach them, they don’t know that going to online sources via the library opens up many more valuable resources than Google can provide.
At the 2013 CCCC meeting in Las Vegas, I attended a session where panelists debated whether we need to focus on research much anymore. I came away convinced that indeed we do need to focus on it, and focus hard: our students need to experience the thrill good solid research can bring, the kind that takes more than a quick one-word Google search!
To see the full graphic and read more about this study, see