The Latest Project Information Literacy Report: Takeaways and Lessons Learned

The last few weeks of December are usually pretty quiet in our library. I like to use this time to catch up on projects, plan for spring, and read articles and studies I’ve had to postpone reading over the last semester. One recent report that caught my eye is the latest Project Information Literacy (PIL) Research Report, written by Alison J. Head and titled,  “Learning the Ropes: How Freshman Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College.”

This report is particularly interesting to community college librarians, of course, because we primarily work with freshmen. The data uncovered by Head and the PIL team provide a clearer picture of the experiences and anxieties that freshmen bring to college-level research, making me rethink how my teaching and outreach are meeting freshmen’s needs and competencies. The report compiles

“data from a comparative analysis of library resources in 30 US high school and 6 college and university libraries; interviews with 35 first-term freshmen from 6 US colleges and universities; and an online survey with 1,941 US high school and college student respondents.” (1)

Of the six colleges and universities from which library resources were compared to high schools and from which freshmen were interviewed, two institutions (and the only large institutions) are community colleges: Mesa Community College and Santa Rosa Junior College (37).

Head and the PIL team found that one of the biggest differences students must navigate when they make the transition to college is the vast number and variety of research sources their college libraries hold, compared to their high schools: “The average college library in our sample had 19 times as many online library databases and 9 times as many books and journals as the average high school library” (10).

Being thrust into a suddenly vast and incredibly complex information environment is a huge source of anxiety for freshmen, and as Karen Schneider points out, not necessarily a selling point for enticing the freshmen to use the library. While we might feel we’re opening students’ eyes to a delightful array of resources, Schneider notes that “when we crow about the bazillion resources we offer, we might be scaring the pants off students,” instead. Faced with the vast unknown, it’s no wonder that students tend to stick with the research techniques that worked for them in high school, “their deeply ingrained habit of using Google searches and Wikipedia” (3). Now when I speak at orientations and student gatherings, I’ll place less of an emphasis on the amount of resources, and more emphasis on the quality of the resources and the librarians whose job it is to help students use them.

Several other findings from the report have made me reconsider the the content I cover in one-shots and the way I speak to faculty about information literacy instruction. Here’s what else I’m going to do differently next semester:

Emphasize keyword brainstorming and search query formulation

The second major finding of the report reinforces what I’ve known anecdotally for some time. Head and colleagues found that for students,

“It was daunting to conduct online searches for academic literature. Nearly three-fourths of the sample (74%) said they struggled with selecting keywords and formulating efficient  search queries. Over half (57%) felt stymied by the thicket of  irrelevant results their online searches usually returned.” (3)

In my one-shots, I cover keyword brainstorming and combining keywords with Boolean logic to form search queries.  I make a big deal about the fact that the number one problem my students have when researching is that they think a library database will work exactly like Google, and it can be incredibly frustrating when it doesn’t.

To teach the importance of brainstorming keywords about your topic, I try to entice students by saying that Google searches and Wikipedia pages can be a great way to come up with keywords. I illustrate this by showing students the table of contents for the Wikipedia entry on “childhood obesity,” for example, and asking them to pick out keywords from the list.

When I have time, I lead a Think-Pair-Share activity to brainstorm keywords for a vague paper topic: “TV is bad for children,” or “Technology is destroying society.” The whiteboard fills with suggested keywords, and I show students that they were able to brainstorm all this in just a few minutes, from just a few words.

While that activity is engaging and fun in class – especially when we start discussing which reality TV shows might be most harmful to children – I often wonder how well it transfers when students start searching for themselves. The PIL report finding that students’ biggest difficulty was choosing keywords and formulating effective search queries made me realize that I could be doing a better job.

In the future, rather than asking students to brainstorm keywords for one of my dummy topics, or even a topic from the instructors’ assignment list, I’ll ask them to brainstorm keywords about their own topics. I’ll encourage them to use their laptops and phones (and once we get a new library classroom with computers for every student, their desktops) to search the Internet for keywords. With a computer for every student, they’ll even be able to start trying those keywords out in the databases or catalog.

Unfortunately, too often I’m teaching a one-shot to students who haven’t chosen research topics yet, or worse, are hearing about their research assignment for the first time on the day of the class. In order to change that, I’ll start being more proactive and consistent with faculty about my expectations for the class: Students should be familiar with the requirements and expectations of their research assignment, and they should already have an approved topic in hand. This way, there’s a better chance that my students are leaving the classroom equipped with half a dozen or more targeted keywords with which to begin their searches.

De-emphasize peer-reviewed journals as sources (for now)

Another takeaway from the PIL report is that students are not only overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them when conducting college research, but they’re also having difficulty comprehending the information sources themselves:

“Once they had some trusted sources in hand, about a third of the freshmen said they floundered with reading different formats and making sense of what they had found. Many had never seen, let alone read a journal article or an abstract before. At the same time, students wrestled with understanding what authors meant, given their lack of familiarity with scholarly language and writing style.” (17)

Barbara Fister writes about this in her post about the PIL report, and I share her doubts that requiring first-year students to use scholarly sources is in their best interest. Many of our instructors require their students to use peer-reviewed journal articles as sources, and while I think it’s a good thing to expose many of our students scholarly literature early in their college career, when introduced too early or used in the wrong context, I think requirements to use journals only sets students up for frustration and difficulty completing the assignment.

For example, I’ve seen students in developmental reading and writing classes required to use journal sources. These students have such reading comprehension challenges that even reading their textbook can be a challenge. How can we successfully teach students to evaluate and synthesize journal articles into a research paper if they can’t understand the content itself?

In the future, when an instructor assigns students to use scholarly journal articles as sources, and it doesn’t seem to fit the assignment or skill level, I’ll ask the instructor to reconsider their requirements and suggest other information sources to help students complete the assignment more successfully.

Spend more time showing students how to use the information they find

Another finding from the PIL report shows that while many freshmen are having trouble finding information effectively, almost as many have difficulties synthesizing the information they do find. Researchers found that 43% of freshmen “had trouble making sense of, and tying together, all the information they had found” (3). Students seem to be having difficulty “selecting meaningful passages and tying it all together. In their words, they had problems ‘connecting the dots,’ ‘figuring out the hook,’ and ‘discerning what you’re going to use’” (17).

I see this in reference interviews all the time. Some students will come right out and ask how they’re supposed to use a source they’ve found; they’re confused about what and how much they’re allowed to quote, and how to incorporate that into their body paragraphs to support their theses. Often it’ll reveal itself in other ways: Students believe they have to read an entire book cover-to-cover in order to use it as a source, or they’ll quote from an article’s abstract when the full text is available, or they’ll come to the desk with their entire paper already written, looking for sources to shoehorn into their paper to satisfy their instructor’s source requirements.

While using information is at the heart of ACRL Information Literacy Standard Three, I’m not able to cover this in one-shots as much as I’d like. This is mostly due to time constraints, but also because the majority of our one-shots are taught to freshman composition classes, and I tend to assume that instructors are already teaching students to extract information from sources to support their own argument throughout the course.

But there’s obviously a disconnect here, as the PIL report shows. One thing I think I can do to help is to start asking instructors about their students’ skills in this area, especially if they’ve already completed an assignment incorporating outside source material. If the instructor feels his or her students need some work in that area, I could design a group activity where students are assigned a stance on a controversial topic and given copies of a source with information about that topic (an op-ed, or a Viewpoints article from Gale’s Opposing Viewpoints database, perhaps). Then I could ask students to quickly skim the source, and pick out quotations that support their stance and/or refute their stance. When students come back together as a group, they’ll be asked to share the quotes they picked out, and describe their reasoning for selecting that quote.

Keep educating faculty about the importance of integrated information literacy instruction

When I visit department meetings during the in-service week before spring semester starts, I’ll be talking about the PIL report and some of its main findings. Specifically, I’ll mention some of the report’s recommendations and their implications for the way we teach research skills at my institution.

For example, the report recommends “an integrated approach to teaching information literacy competencies” (32), emphasizing the value of embedded librarianship over one-shot sessions, so I’ll ask more faculty to embed me in their LMS course pages or make use of customized LibGuides and handouts.

Another recommendation, which some faculty at my institution already do, is to scaffold assignments and build on research skills in such a way that freshmen “apprentice the research process” –  rather than asking them to “magically write and deliver” a finished research paper (33). I’ll ask faculty to think about working up to a finished research paper with smaller assignments throughout the semester that allow students to work on one or two research skills at a time.

The report’s final recommendation is to “reset” expectations about incoming students’ research skills. Faculty and administrators often overlook the importance of librarians  and information literacy instruction because they think students are “digital natives” who won’t have any trouble finding information online. But the report makes it clear: “The cognitive skills needed for scholarly inquiry are very different than finding ready-made answers using a Google search” (34). So I’ll share some of the statistics from the report with instructors and emphasize that students’ ability to navigate half a dozen different social media outlets or torrent all their media is not at all indicative of their ability to find and evaluate research sources online.

The PIL report has a lot to say about how freshmen are actually navigating the transition from high school to college research, and I urge every community college librarian with holiday down time to read it. So many of our freshmen transfer to four-year universities — we need to be prepared to help them transition from high school and develop the research skills and habits they’ll need to succeed with us, at their next institution, and beyond.


2 thoughts on “The Latest Project Information Literacy Report: Takeaways and Lessons Learned

  1. Pingback: Procrastinating and Productivity: Start your semester right! | AzLA College and University Libraries Division Blog

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