Report Examines College Students' Research Skills - On the Web and in the Library

Project Information Literacy has released its latest report, detailing "how college students evaluate and use information in the digital age." The report is based on a survey of over 8300 students from 25 college campuses across the U.S and examines how students find information -- for both academic and personal research purposes.

Not surprisingly, one of the major obstacles students reported in researching was the process of getting started -- simply knowing how to narrow their topic and define their inquiry were overwhelming to many, as was being confident about their conclusions and the accuracy of their research. The report describes students' research approach as "risk-averse," as students struggle when they're confronted with the open-endedness of information (and of term paper assignments).

According to the report, students weighted their evaluation of information based on whether it was up-to-date and current -- 77% reported doing this for Web research and 67% when library research.

Students admitted to using the research skills they'd learned in high school and to using the same research routines for all their assignments. Students also said that they frequently turn to others for help with their research. 61% said they looked to friends and family for help evaluating information. 49% asked their instructors for help. Only 11% asked a librarian.

Interestingly, the survey found that few students used Web 2.0 tools for collaboration or for (academic) research.

Sources for Research

The survey found that students used the same resources in the same order in 2010 as they did in the previous study in 2009. And to assuage instructors' fears, it does appear as though students turn to course materials first, before Googling things. Interestingly, Wikipedia ranks lower as a resource for academic research than it does for students' personal research, an indication that students have heeded the caution from their instructors (accurate or not) that the site is not "scholarly."

Also of note, students turned more to social networking and to friends for personal research in 2010 than they did in 2009.

Evaluating Sources

When evaluating sources, students look first and foremost at whether content is up-to-date. And while these and factors like the authors' credentials are important to students, so is "interface design," suggesting that students value the "look and feel" of a site as a way to evaluate the source. (A real blow to the credibility of a lot of university and government websites, I guess.)

The report finds, not surprisingly, that students evaluate Web content more closely than they do materials they find in the library, where they expect others to have done the curation for them. The report also found that humanities students were the most frequent evaluators of research, in all areas except when it comes to evaluating charts. (Clearly, there's not enough sentence diagramming in college English classes)

Research Tools

Even though students are using Web 2.0 tools in their personal lives, many of these tools have not yet made their way into students' research toolbox. The report finds that students use many of the same research techniques they learned in high school (i.e. come up with a thesis statement and build from there), and its conclusions urge professors and librarians to help students develop "higher-order thinking skills" in association with research instruction and assignments, so students can learn to better evaluate and interpret information.

Photo credits: Flickr user umjanedoean


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