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What Undergraduate Researchers Need

December 2, 2010

Barbara Fister recently published a blog post at Inside Higher Ed titled Undergraduates in the Library, Trying Not To Drown that is truly important reading for anyone who teaches undergraduates and assigns them research projects.  It’s short – go read the whole thing.

What, you didn’t go read it?  Well, here are the highlights:

The good news is that students do look critically at their sources and have evaluation criteria that they apply to choose which sources to cite or to use in everyday life. They don’t take what they find online or in library databases at face value, and in addition to wanting a good grade, they place value on what they learn as they do research and on searching “comprehensively” – though what that means to them is different than it is to an expert.

The bad news is that they think there’s far too much information available and, as a result, narrow their options in rather mechanical ways. They limit what they look at to avoid being completely lost and overwhelmed. Very few students ask librarians “here’s my topic; where should I look?” Instead, they typically do what has worked before, hoping to gather usable results in the most time-efficient manner.

In other words, if Jstor has worked for a student before, she will keep using Jstor, even if that is not the best resource for a given topic.

The study also confirmed something previous research has found: undergraduates have the greatest trouble at the start of their projects because they are often asked to write about topics they don’t know much about. They can’t form a clear focus until they’ve done a lot of scanning to figure out the landscape of the subject matter, and it’s hard to formulate a query because they don’t know what terms are relevant and may miss key words because they are phrases they’ve never heard.

When I teach a library class for undergraduates, I discuss the nature of the research process, and emphasize the idea of starting with an encyclopedia (even Wikipedia!), getting a grip on the basics of the topic, and being prepared to search repeatedly as one’s understanding of a topic narrows or changes focus.  I don’t know how much they listen; since they can dive into a database and get results, I suspect many of them do that.  Certainly that seems to be the case when students instant message us for help because the scholarly articles they are finding are “too specific” or “too complicated.”

For librarians, the implications are rather more stark. We tend to think more is always better, that helping students do research means exposing them to a huge banquet of options. The problem for undergraduates is not finding enough sources: it’s finding the right ones.

Over at the Ancient World Open Bibliographies blog, I posted about this topic.  Scholars, and librarians too, have a tendency to want to collect ALL the references, or ALL the books.  But for many purposes, a curated collection – of books, citations, or what have you – saves time and gets the fledgling researcher off on the right foot, right from the start.

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