Admissions of Another Sort

Mary W. George reviews the confessions college students make to librarians -- and their implications for educators.

April 13, 2009

When professors assign a library project to undergraduates, just what do they expect students to learn from the research part of the experience? What do professors think students are doing to come up with the sources in their papers? If there is a discrepancy between pedagogical intent and actual student research behavior, how do faculty members address it? Or do they care, especially since they may not spot a student’s research problem until the end of a course and may well not see that student again? Does the end of a well-written, well-supported argument justify whatever means a student uses to acquire sources?

These are issues I often fret about, both in private and aloud when I compare notes with other academic librarians. My concern arises not from a general suspicion that students are engaging in what I call WIGWAM research (Wikipedia – Internet – Google – Without Anything More), but from what students themselves have been telling me for decades. It is clear from e-mail, reference encounters, research consultations in my office, and questions that arise in library instruction sessions, that most students simply do not retain the concepts and logic involved in discovering information sources — never mind the principles for evaluating the sources they do turn up. Even students whom I’ve counseled extensively in the past, and whose projects turned out well, seem clueless the very next semester when they face a research assignment in a different course.

Here are the most persistent and troubling confessions I’ve heard from students over the years, with my speculation on their cause and cure. Some of these statements have been blurted out, others are responses to a question I’ve asked.

1. "I have no idea [about the dates or details of my topic]."

Students naturally assume that their textbooks and lectures provide adequate background for their research assignment, but that is rarely the case. Faculty can remedy this problem by having students explore their intended topics using, in addition to the inevitable Wikipedia, a specialized encyclopedia and factual tools such as chronologies and biographical or geographical dictionaries. Librarians will be glad to suggest titles, in both electronic and print formats.

2. I’m wondering why I can’t I find this periodical article in the library’s catalog.

This confusion is understandable: Students are programmed to throw any phrase they come across into a search engine or an online catalog. The antidote is for instructors to make a conscious effort in class to parse an article citation taken from something the students have already read, stressing that one needs to search the journal title in the online catalog, not the article title. (The same difficulty arises when students search for a chapter by name rather than the title of the collection it’s in.) Instructors can also use this discussion to explain what bibliographic style they want students to use.

3. This magazine isn’t digitized, so I guess we don’t have it and I can’t get it.

The issue here is two-fold, the conviction many students have that all periodicals have been scanned in entirety, and the corollary notion that if the college library lacks something, it is therefore impossible to obtain. Librarians are responsible for describing the physical format(s) of every resource they have and for promoting interlibrary loan and other services that supplement their collections. Faculty can assist by reinforcing the fact that source identification is often a separate step from source procurement. The goal is for students to understand their options for acquiring what they have discovered.

4. I need to change my topic because there’s not enough stuff [sic] about it.

Partly this comes from the student’s frustration in a high school or public library with limited collections, but mostly it comes from limited acquaintance with a thesaurus. Keyword searching in an online catalog or article database is very powerful—provided one uses pertinent terms and truncates wisely to account for variant word forms and spellings. Students likewise need a sense of hierarchy (if there’s nothing about the species, try the genus) and a refresher on Boolean logic. Librarians can coach students in these matters, but the occasional faculty riff about vocabulary, both common and specialist, would underscore its importance.

5. I’m not clear about what makes an article scholarly or a book a monograph.

What we have here is jargon that puzzles many undergraduates, especially since they see mention of peer-reviewed, refereed, academic, or juried articles. We cannot expect students to recognize synonyms if they don’t grasp the underlying concept. Both faculty and librarians should make it their business to define these terms in every research context.

6. I can’t find books about [an event that occurred last month].

This belief will seem far-fetched, even to advanced undergraduates, but I assure you, it does exist and is best refuted by an anecdote in class about the time that elapses between an insight or discovery and its formal communication to others in the field.

7. I’m confused about the difference between a primary and a secondary source.

This is the single most complex idea for students to master, largely because the nature of a source — its utility for the project at hand — is determined by the research question. It takes several assignments in different disciplines before students understand that one person’s primary source for Topic A can be someone else’s secondary source for Topic B. In my ideal world every professor and guest lecturer who speaks to undergraduates would routinely reflect on the range and role of primary and secondary sources in their own research. Conclusions and interpretations can be brilliant, but novice researchers also need to learn about the intellectual road an expert travels to those ends.

8. I’m afraid I’ll be cheating if I take references from someone else’s bibliography.

You may shake your head at this confession (I certainly do), but it highlights how uncertain students can be about the boundary between plagiarism and scholarly practice. Here again, the best solution is for both faculty and librarians to extol the benefits, and acknowledge the pitfalls, of footnote tracking.

Interestingly, these revelations have not changed significantly in the past few decades, except that students now have how-to questions about technology as well. What worries me most today is the absence of undergraduate concern about evaluating sources as their research proceeds: They almost always want to gather sources first and then assess them, going back to the well for more if, and only if, their professor says they need additional support for one of their points. In other words, they do not see library research as a dynamic, iterative process, but as a hunt-fetch-and-finish drill. Further, students arrive in college believing that if a source exists and seems relevant, then it must be good and sufficient for their project.

Their savvy about what’s possible in a “free” Web world is at odds with their understanding — which is almost nil — of how knowledge of various sorts is created, packaged, transmitted, delivered, and paid for. These are serious misunderstandings with profound consequences, but if faculty and librarians share their perceptions and find ways to coordinate their messages, then student admissions of the future should, at the least, be different.


Mary W. George is senior reference librarian at Princeton University Library. She is author of the new bookThe Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know(Princeton University Press).


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