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It’s always a red-letter day when Project Information Literacy comes out with report. A new one was published earlier this month, and I finally found time to read it. As usual, it’s time well spent, and I will be sending the link around to a lot of people on campus who I know will be interested.

Alison Head, the PI for the project, has delved into the experience of first year students as they adjust to college-level expectations for finding and using information. This is a great bookend to last year’s incredibly valuable report on what happens in the year after college. That report was particularly significant because most of us have absolutely no idea what happens after college and whether our claims of laying a foundation for life-long learning have any validity. Now we have some idea: yes, students have benefited from practicing close, analytical reading, making critical distinctions among sources of information, and synthesizing what they find. But their employers report that they don’t always think of people as valuable information resources, are hesitant to get on the phone and ask total strangers for information, and are much more comfortable confiding their uncertainty to Google rather than to their coworkers. (This strikes me as another argument for encouraging students to see knowledge in terms of conversation rather than things.)

This new report, Learning the Ropes, confirms what we already know (but sometimes forget). For most first year students, even small college libraries are many times larger than the school library they may have used previously. It’s hard for first year students to come up with keywords to search for information on topics they don’t know much about. Sorting through the multitude of results is difficult, and making sense of articles in scholarly journals (which they have never seen before) is a challenge. The strategies that have worked before don't work as well with college-level research. Many students in the study stepped up to the challenge of using library databases for their work, but some continued to rely primarily on Google.

Students found the freedom they were given to choose topics exciting and a contrast to high school assignments, which were limited in number and offered less latitude to choose a direction. This is a heartening finding. A not-so-surprising corollary is that they feel a bit overwhelmed by that freedom. There is too much stuff to go through, too many choices to make about what databases to try and which results to pay attention to. One student was even defeated by the problem of knowing who to ask for help in the library. Her high school had one staff member who dealt with all of her questions. The college library had lots of people – and for her, that was daunting. They are also having to manage their time differently. They may have to do research for several papers in a single semester after having written only one or two research papers in their entire high school experience – which in many cases were reports rather than a thesis-driven arguments. There’s a lot to learn in that first year, and we often forget how foreign both the process and the discourse is.

Head also identifies some “myths” expressed by many of her research subjects. College students shouldn’t ask for help, because professors expect you to figure stuff out on your own. Since most sources are online, going to the library isn’t necessary. The books in the library are too old. All of them, totally useless. Interestingly, some students seemed to take the advice of librarians a little too seriously. If a librarian told them a database would be good for their assignment, that was the only place they would look.

I was a little surprised by the number of first year subjects who found librarians a helpful source of information. It’s hard to tell, when you’re introducing a group of first year students to the library, if they are paying much attention. They have perfected the eyes-slightly-averted blank gaze, the one that tells instructors “don’t call on me!” But the two most frequently-cited sources of help with college research were composition instructors and librarians. Other professors came in third, with upperclass students next, faring a bit better than tutors, the writing center, or advisors. However, most of the help first year students got from a librarian was during an orientation or a class session in the library, which many of them said wasn’t enough. Yet they weren’t keen on asking for help later from a librarian – just as, in some cases, they were too shy to make use of their professor’s office hours.

As an earlier PIL study found, students pick up a handful of strategies, some from high school and others developed in the first year, and stick to them. This study elaborates on the sense of disorientation that new students feel when embarking on college-level research and the importance of giving them a good start, when they are encountering scholarship first hand for the first time.

I admit that I haven’t always been convinced that first year students get much out of library sessions – or out of assignments that ask them to draw on information from sources they have so little preparation to understand and put in context. I worry that in our rush to introduce them to reading and writing about peer-reviewed sources, we're encouraging the kind of patchwriting that researchers involved in The Citation Project encountered. I'm not convinced we help them understand why scholarly sources are valuable so much as we convince them they are required and what they look like. Though I still think there is a lot more deep learning that can happen in upper division courses, where students have more context and background knowledge and are ready to dig deeper and recognize themselves as contributors to a scholarly conversation, this report has encouraged me to keep thinking hard about that first year encounter with the library and how to make it a strong foundation for the future. If students are going to find research exciting, we owe it to them to make it a little less overwhelming. 

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