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“What Librarians Should Know About Today’s Students”

October 6, 2014

During the Pennsylvania Library Association’s annual conference, the College & Research Division sponsored a luncheon on Tuesday, September 30th.  Approximately 200 people were in attendance to hear Alison J. Head, Ph.D., speak about “What Librarians Should Know About Today’s Students.”

Dr. Head is a Principal Research Scientist in the Information School and is a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Within academic librarianship, she is best known for directing Project Information Literacy (PIL), an ongoing series of research studies examining how college students and recent college graduates navigate information in the digital age.  PIL seeks to collect stories and data about what it’s like to be a student in the digital age, and participating institutions have ranged from Ivy League institutions to community colleges.

Project Information Literacy is in the midst of its eighth study, examining how recent graduates locate information for “real life” inquiries (such as financial matters or health issues), what their information needs are, and what resources they use.  Dr. Head suggests that academic librarians should look more closely at public libraries and how those are used for these post-higher education information needs, specifically how the two types of institutions can mesh.

PIL has identified seven aspects of student information practices:

  1. Students say that research is more difficult than ever before. They described their thoughts about research assignments using words such as fear, angst, tired, dread, excited, anxious, annoyed, stressed, disgusted, intrigued, confused, overwhelmed.  Interestingly, freshmen often pair concepts such as overwhelmed and excited.
  2. Getting started is the hardest part of research, from defining a topic to honing its scope. Students aren’t having as much trouble with searching as we may think, but they are having significant trouble with topic/thesis/question development.
  3. Student frustrations begin with finding context. They need to identify the big picture (summary, background) and learn the language (meaning of terms, selecting keywords) before they can begin gathering information.
  4. Students use the same few go-to sources, regardless of the course or assignment.
  5. Students describe Wikipedia as “my presearch tool” – it’s not the first step, it’s the 0.5 step. They acknowledge that it’s a great place to start, but a horrible place to end.
  6. Students say that instructors are “my research coaches.” When assignment handouts offer research guidance (which is rare), many recommend a “place-based source” (i.e. the library or a specific book), only a few recommend consulting librarians, and even fewer define what ‘research’ is or means.
  7. The library is “my refuge.” Students may seem distracted while they’re in the library, using a lot of sites and media, but they are working.  Many prefer to use computers in the library to do work because their personal computers have more distractions of social media, games, etc.

So what’s a librarian to do?

These findings indicate that librarians need to reevaluate how they approach information literacy with undergraduates.  Dr. Head emphasized the shift from a time of information scarcity to the current information abundance – she stated that information evaluation is the critical 21st century competency.

Because students tend to use the same resource for all of their information needs (and often these are the sources they knew from high school research experiences), it’s more important than ever for librarians to go beyond the “one shot” or even a “three shot” model to embedding.  The in-depth, course-specific work with students can help them learn to differentiate so that they can choose the best library resource for the assignment.

Students are having a harder time selecting, defining, and honing a topic, than they are in finding sources.  To address this need, librarians should place less emphasis (and thus spend less time on) search mechanics and instead place more emphasis (and thus spend more time on) the tools and techniques for developing thesis statements and research questions.

As an academic librarian in a strictly undergraduate college, I appreciated the work of PIL and the words of Dr. Alison J. Head.  It was reaffirming to see that the things I’ve observed in students at my college are consistent with larger trends – and I look forward to changing my own teaching to better address the challenges students have shared with PIL.

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