Joho the Blog » [2b2k] [berkman] Alison Head on how students seek information

[2b2k] [berkman] Alison Head on how students seek information

Alison Head, who is at the Berkman Center and the Library Information Lab this year, but who is normally based at U of Washington’s Info School, is giving a talk called “Modeling the Information-Seeking Process of College Students.” (I did a podcast interview with her a couple of months ago.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Project Information Literacy is a research project that reaches across institutions. They’ve (Michael Eisenberg co-leads the project) surveyed 11,000 students on 41 US campuses to find out how do students find and use information. They use voluntary samples, not random samples. But, Alison says, the project doesn’t claim to be able to generalize to all students; they look at the relationships among different kinds of schools and overall trends. They make special efforts to include community colleges, which are often under-represented in studies of colleges.

The project wanted to know what’s going through students’ heads as they do research. What’s it like to be a student in the digital age? “How do students define the research process, how do they conceptualize it” throughout everyday school life, including non-course-related research (e.g., what to buy).


Four takeaways from all five studies:

1. “Students say research is more difficult for them than ever before.” This is true both for course-related and everyday life research. Teachers and librarians denied this finding when it came out. But students describe the process using terms of stress (fear,angst, tired, etc.) Everyday-life research also had a lot of risk associated with it, e.g., when researching medical problems.


Their research led the project to come up with a preliminary model based on what students told them about the difficulties of doing research that says in the beginning part of research, students try to define four contexts: big picture, info-gathering, language, situational. These provide meaning and interpretation.


a. Big picture. In a focus group, a student said s/he went to international relations class and there was an assignment on how Socrates would be relevant to a problem today. Alison looked at the syllabus and wondered, “Was this covered?” Getting the big picture enables students to get their arms around a topic.


b. Info gathering. “We give students access to 80 databases at our small library, and they really want access to one,” says Barbara Fister at Gustavus Adolphus.


c. Language. This is why most students go to librarians. They need the vocabulary.


d. Situational. The expectations: how long should the paper be, how do I get an A, etc.? In everyday life, the situational question might be: how far do I go with an answer? When do I know enough?


Students surveyed said that for course related research they almost always need the big picture, often need info-gathering, sometimes need language, and sometimes need situational. Students were 1.5x more likely to go to a librarian for language context. For everyday-life, big picture is often a need, and the others are needed only sometimes. Many students find everyday-life research is harder because it’s open-ended, harder to know when you’re done, and harder to know when you’re right. Course-related research ends with a grade.


2. “Students turn to the same ‘tried and true’ resources over and over again.”. In course research, course readings were used 97% of the time. Search engines: 96%. Library databases: 94%. Instructors: 88%. Wikipedia: 85%. (Those are the 2010 results. In 2009, everything rose except course readings.) Students are not using a lot of on-campus sources. Alison says that during 20 years of teaching, she found students were very disturbed if she critiqued the course readings. Students go to course readings not only to get situational context, but also to get big picture context, i.e., the lay of the land. They don’t want you critiquing those readings, because you’re disrupting their big picture context. Librarians were near the bottom, in line with other research findings. But “instructors are a go-to source.” Also, note that students don’t go online for all their info. They talk to friends, instructors, etc.


In everyday life research, the list in order is: Search engines 95%, Wikipedia 84%, friends and family 87%, personal collection 75%, and government sites 65%.


Students tend to repeat the same processes.


3. “Students use a strategy of predictability and efficiency.” They’re not floundering. They have a strategy. You may not like it, but they have one. It’s a way to fill in the context.


Alison presents a composite student named Jessica. (i) She has no shortage of ideas for research. But she needs the language to talk about the project, and to get good results from searching. (ii) Students are often excited about the course research project, but they worry that they’ll pick a topic “that fails them,” i.e., that doesn’t let them fulfill the requirements. (iii) They are often risk-averse. They’ll use the same resource over and over, even Project Muse for a science course. (“I did a paper on the metaphor of breast cancer,” said one student.) (iv) They are often self-taught and independent, and try to port over what they learned in high school. But HS works for HS, and not for college. (iv) Currency matters.


What’s the most difficult step? 1. Getting started 84%. 2. Defining a topic 66%. Narrowing a topic 62%. Sorting through irrelevant results 61%. Task definition is the most difficult part of research. For life research, the hardest part is figuring out when you’re done.


So, where do they go when they’re having difficulty in course research? They go to instructors, but handouts fall short: few handouts the project looked at discussed what research means (16%). Six in ten handouts sent students to the library for a book. Only 18% mention plagiarism, and few of those explained what it is. Students want email access to the instructor. Second, most want a handout that they can take with them and check off as they do their work. Few hand-outs tell students how to gather information. Faculty express surprise at this, saying that they assume students know how to do research already, or that it’s not the prof’s job to teach them that. They tend not to mention librarians or databases.


Students use ibrary databases (84%), OPAC (78%), study areas (72%), check library shelves (55%), cafe (48%). Only 12% use the online “Ask a librarian” reference. 20% consult librarians about assignments, but 24% ask librarians about the library system.


Librarians use a model of scholarly thoroughness, while students use a model of efficiency. Students tend to read the course materials and then google for the rest.


Alison plays a video:



How have things changed? 1. Students contend with a staggering amount of information. 2. They are always on and always being notified. 3. It’s a Web 2.0 sharing culture. The old days of dreading group projects are ending; satudents sometimes post their topics on Facebook to elicit reactions and help. 4. The expectations from information has changed.


“Books, do I use them? Not really, they are antiquated interaces. You have to look in an index, way in the back, and it’s not hyperlinke.”

[I moderated the Q&A so I couldn't liveblog it.]
TAGS: -berkman

3 Responses to “[2b2k] [berkman] Alison Head on how students seek information”

  1. This new blog design really sucks.

  2. [...] Weinberger has posted his notes from a very interesting session at Berkman that I for some reason missed – Alison Head’s [...]

  3. Alison Head on How Students Seek Information…

    David Weinberger: Alison Head, who is at the Berkman Center and the Library Information Lab this year, but who is normally based at U of Washington’s Info School, is giving a talk called “Modeling the Information-Seeking Process of College Students….

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