Alchemical Thoughts

Brief note on research assignment handouts

Posted on: July 29, 2010

(Another crappy day at Blogger when it comes to saving posts and publishing them. WordPress.com is looking pretty good about now. Don't get me wrong, I like Vox, but the closed commenting system is a major hindrance to my two readers. Anyhow, I am posting the piece here so I can share it).

My boss forwarded this story out of The Chronicle of Higher Education to the librarians. The article highlights a study from Project Information Literacy, out of the University of Washington's I-School which finds that "most research-assignment handouts given to undergraduates fail to guide the students toward a comprehensive strategy for completing the work." You can find the full report at this link (note: PDF). I mostly did not have much of an issue with the article other than the following statement:

Alison Head, one of the heads of the Project, on some professors, "the latter group of professors may underestimate students' ability to process information, given their familiarity with the Internet."

I would have thought that someone like Ms. Head would be a bit more careful in making a remark like that given that the LIS literature does have various examples that say clearly that students, especially the digital natives she is discussing, are not always proficient in processing information from online sources. I have said it once, and I will say it again: just because they can use the Internet, it does not follow that they know what to do with what they find on the Internet. So, while it is true some professors underestimate their students, it is also a given that some librarians and digital native cheerleaders (like the twopointopians, to borrow the term from the Annoyed Librarian) go to the other extreme and overestimate those students skills. But you do not have to take my word for it. Here are some articles I have read just on that topic:

(Update note: Same day): This came into my inbox, which adds to the point I am trying to make. Link is to a press release from Northwestern University where researchers find, lo and behold, that "just because younger people grew up with the Web doesn't mean they're universally savvy with it." The press release is highlighting a study recently published. The full citation for the article reporting the study is as follows for those interested:

Hargittai, Eszter, et.al. "Trust Online: Young Adults' Evaluation of Web Content." International Journal of Communication. 4 (2010): 468-494.

It seems to be an open journal, so I am providing the link. I also saved it to read later.

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2 Responses to "Brief note on research assignment handouts"

Just read your post with interest, especially your comment about how one of the lead researchers at Project Information Literacy (PIL) made a remark to a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter in a recent story (7/28/10) that college students were proficient with searching online sources and processing information. Long and short of it, it's not what was said in the interview, nor is it what PIL has found in ongoing research across a large number of U.S. campuses. I am Alison Head–the Lead Researcher at PIL. I am the one you are referring to in your post. I would like to
add a little more to your post, if your willing, in order to set the
record straight.

First, at PIL, we have found that students don't exclusively use Google and they don't use Google as the very first source (we found they
tend to use course readings first)–they consistently use a small mix of sources that include course readings, Google, scholarly research databases, OPACs, and instructors. Whether students are proficient with searching those sources is, of course, a different matter (see second point below ;-).

Second, we have found that today's college students have difficulty with conducting
research and finding information—they are not highly proficient at searching or processing results, despite their digital native origins and what some may (falsely) assume.. In focus group
sessions and surveys we have conducted, participating students have reported having frequent
difficulties with conducting research, especially in online environments, including, but not limited
to, mapping their contextual research needs to online sources (i.e.,
big picture, language, situational, and information-gathering contexts)
and more specifically, narrowing down topics in order to begin the first steps of a
search and sorting through what one student called "insanely
irrelevant results" in online environments (often from a search engine query, e.g., Google).PIL's findings were explained to the Chronicle reporter at great length; though context, as we have found in our research, is in the "eye of the beholder."Thanks for listening,- Alison HeadLead Researcher, Project Information LiteracyResearch Scientist, University of Washington's Information School

Thank you for stopping by Professor Head and adding the necessary context to the article. It was why it struck me as strange that such a remark would be made given the literature. The quote by itself is very different than the full context. Readers please note the clarification and addition. Best.

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