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Studies shed more light on student research skills

Improving Research Skills
June 1, 2012

Learning how to use a university library can pose a challenge to first-generation college students. Depending on their educational background, many such students might have little or no experience tackling major research assignments and navigating cavernous university libraries.

In a 2009 study, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that many first-generation students, intimidated by the scale and complexity of the campus library, did their research at their more familiar, but less resourceful, local public libraries during the first year of college. Some librarians were concerned that such habits could arrest the development of students' information literacy -- a skill set that is difficult to cultivate in most college students, let alone first-generation ones.

But an encouraging new study out of Illinois-Chicago suggests that first-generation students do in fact improve their information literacy skills over their college careers.

“[T]he study showed that regardless of the disadvantages with which students arrive at college, at some point before they graduate, college appears to provide them with the tools they need to compete with their peers,” said Firouzeh Logan and Elizabeth Pickard, assistant professors at Illinois-Chicago, who co-wrote the study.

The new study, which is associated with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) project, used a mixture of surveys and open-ended interviews with Illinois-Chicago seniors. They then contrasted the findings with the results of the 2009 study, which had explored the research habits of first-year students who were the first of their families to attend college.

On the whole, the study found that seniors held a much more sophisticated view of the research process than did first-year students. For example, seniors tended to select sources based on what appeared to them most relevant, whereas first-years often picked sources based on how much information they contained, relevant or not. About a third of seniors mentioned, without prompting, comprehensiveness as a research goal, compared to 6 percent of first-years. And many of those seniors, unlike most first-years, had a method for figuring out when they had exhausted a topic -- namely, when they started coming across redundant information in multiple sources.

They also showed improvement in one crucial aspect: asking for help. The new study found that first-generation seniors ask for help less frequently and more effectively than their first-year counterparts did. “Of the seniors, 54 percent sought help from librarians, compared to only 22 percent of the freshmen, who sought help most frequently from their instructors and next from their friends,” the researchers write.

Ignorance of what librarians are good for, and reluctance to ask them for help, was a general theme -- not just among first-generation students -- across all the 2009 ERIAL studies, which caused a buzz when they were published last year. "Librarians are believed to do work unrelated to helping students, or work that, while possibly related to research, does not entitle students to relationships with them," wrote the authors of one ERIAL study, which studied student behavior at Illinois-Chicago and two other institutions.

But the Illinois-Chicago seniors interviewed in the new study seemed to utilize librarians well, asking them “for help with more complex use of databases and refining search terms,” write Logan and Pickard. And they tended not to turn to instructors or family members for research help.

Over all, the authors say, this new study “shows that students who may arrive with less heuristic knowledge about campus life can successfully acquire it.”

Search Tool Discoveries

In another new study, ERIAL-affiliated researchers explored which electronic “discovery tools” students at Bucknell University and Illinois Wesleyan University found most effective when attempting to unearth sources for research.

The researchers conducted lengthy interviews with 97 students on the two campuses. In addition to a question-and-answer portion, the interviews involved prompting the students with research questions and asking them to use library tools to procure potential sources, which were later scored by librarians based on quality.

Perhaps surprisingly, the number of information sessions students reported attending did not correlate with the quality of the sources they ended up picking. Nor did students’ own assessment of their research skills.

Consistent with earlier ERIAL findings, the students in the new study tended to use every tool’s search function box as though it were a Google search box. And they tended not to adjust the default settings.

Therefore, the efficacy of each discovery tool often depends on how well the criteria written into the default search algorithm of that particular tool accords with the criteria of the particular research assignment it is being used for, say the researchers.

For example one discovery tool, Summon, ranks newspapers higher than do some other tools. Doug Way, the head of collections at Grand Valley State University, noticed that the use of digitized newspaper articles jumped after the university installed Summon. Bucknell also saw the use of its the LexisNexis and ProQuest newspaper databases increase -- by 300 percent and 600 percent, respectively -- after its library made Summon available to students.

That does not necessarily mean that newspaper archives suddenly became more relevant to student research projects. The library discovery tool was just partial to that kind of resource.

“It seems that one of the most important -- and perhaps the single most important -- factor in determining which resources students will utilize is the default way in which a particular search system ranks and returns results,” the authors of the study write.

One solution they suggest is giving libraries the power to tweak the algorithms involved in search so that librarians, if asked, could help customize a search protocol based on the unique needs of its researching population -- or perhaps even of a particular student. Although given how closely the proprietors of those tools guard their search formulas, the authors acknowledge that this might be too much to hope for.

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