Studies shed more light on student research skills

Learning to use a college library can be a challenge for first-generation students. Depending on their academic background, many of these students may have little or no experience completing 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 size and complexity of the campus library, conducted their research at their local public libraries. more familiar, but less ingenious, in the first year of college. Some librarians feared that such habits were holding back the development of students’ information literacy—a skill set that is difficult to cultivate in most students, let alone first-generation students.

But an encouraging new study from Illinois-Chicago suggests that first-generation college students actually improve their information literacy skills over the course of their college careers.

“[T]The study showed that whatever disadvantages students come to college with, at some point before graduation, 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-authored the study.

The new study, which is associated with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) project, used a mix of surveys and open-ended interviews with older people in Illinois and Chicago. They then compared the findings with results from the 2009 study, which explored the search habits of freshmen who were the first in their families to attend college.

Overall, the study found that seniors had a much more sophisticated view of the research process than freshmen. For example, seniors tended to select sources based on what seemed most relevant to them, while first-years often selected sources based on the amount of information they contained, whether relevant or not. About a third of seniors mentioned, without prompting, completeness as a research objective, compared to 6% of first years. And many of these seniors, unlike most first-years, had a method of determining when they’d 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 seek help less frequently and more effectively than their first-grade counterparts. “Among seniors, 54% sought help from librarians, compared to only 22% of freshmen, who sought help most often from their instructors and then from their friends,” write the researchers.

Ignorance of what librarians are for and reluctance to ask them for help was a general theme – not just among first-generation students – in all of the 2009 ERIAL studies, which generated buzz when they were published last year. “Librarians are believed to be doing work unrelated to student support, or work which, while possibly related to research, does not entitle students to have any dealings with them,” the authors wrote. authors of an ERIAL study, which studied student behavior at Illinois-Chicago and two other institutions.

But seniors in Illinois and Chicago surveyed in the new study seemed to use librarians well, asking for “help with more complex database use and refining search terms,” ​​write Logan and Pickard. And they tended not to look to the instructors or their family members for research help.

Overall, according to the authors, this new study “shows that students who can arrive with less heuristic knowledge about campus life can acquire it successfully.”

Discoveries of the search tool

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

The researchers conducted lengthy interviews with 97 students on both campuses. In addition to a question-and-answer portion, the interviews involved inviting students to ask research questions and asking them to use library tools to source potential sources, which were then scored by the librarians according to their quality.

Perhaps surprisingly, the number of briefings students said they attended was not correlated with the quality of the sources they ultimately chose. Nor is the students’ own assessment of their research skills.

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

Therefore, the effectiveness of each discovery tool often depends on how well the criteria written into the default search algorithm of that particular tool agrees with the criteria of the particular search mission for which it is used, say the researchers.

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

This does not necessarily mean that newspaper archives have suddenly become more relevant to student research projects. The library discovery tool was just one part of this type of resource.

“It appears that one of the most important – and perhaps the most important – factors in determining which resources students will use is the default way in which a particular search system categorizes and returns results,” the authors write. of the study.

One solution they suggest is to give libraries the power to modify the algorithms involved in research so that librarians, if requested, can help customize a research protocol to the unique needs of its researcher population. – or maybe even a particular student. Although given how close the owners of these tools keep their search formulas, the authors acknowledge that this might be too much to hope for.

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Paul N. Strickland