16 Dec 2013

Essential reading for academic librarians: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College

That's this report (not my blog post! :)). Last week saw the release of another excellent Project Information Literacy report: "Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College,", which provides insight into how first year college students manage the transition to a complex and unfamiliar information environment. Although based on interviews and survey data from the US, many of the findings will likely be relevant across many academic settings.

Some of the challenges highlighted in the report which can contribute to a difficult transition for new students include:

The difference in scale between high school and college libraries (which may be up to a factor of twenty depending on the type of resource). From an Irish perspective, where there are in fact very few second level school libraries, I imagine this difference is even more pronounced. Indeed in some cases, students' only knowledge of a library prior to entering university may be from their experience using public libraries (if even this) .

The most difficult research tasks related to online searching, with three quarters of the sample reporting difficulties selecting keywords, and over half finding themselves overburdened with large volumes of irrelevant information. Identifying and selecting potential sources was the third most frequent difficulty experienced by students. Devising effective search strategies for databases that are comprehensive but reasonably specific is not easy. Ask anyone who has ever undertaken a systematic review. But we need to remember that first year undergraduates are not writing a systematic review, they are finding their way around the landscape and learning as they go. They don't need every single paper, they need a few important and relevant ones, which (most importantly) they can evaluate, analyse, critique, synthesise and use with their own ideas and arguments.

It is not just finding information that is a problem however, with over 40% expressing difficulty in making sense of, and using, the information they had found. If we target our instruction solely at retrieving and extracting information, we may be showing our users where the door is, but still not giving them the key. After reading the report, I believe it points to a need to simplify a lot of what we offer to users. I think well-designed discovery tools and Google Scholar can work extremely well for transitioning undergraduates. They simplify the process of retrieval for students (and yes, they oversimplify it as well) in a way that looks and feels familiar, freeing up significant time for developing skills for evaluating, using and managing information. I know some librarians feel that encouraging students to use these tools somehow 'lessens' the value of library databases like JSTOR or Web of Science, but in reality it is simply exposing our subscription content in a new way.

For many undergraduates, the alternative to using discovery platforms and Google Scholar is not embracing half a dozen specialist databases and boolean logic, but rather switching off from library resources altogether.

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