Saturday, August 18, 2007

Student Research: It's Not What You Thought

First Monday has a very interesting report by Alison Head, who conducted a study focusing on the research habits of college students. If college students' search behavior reflect what they're learning in high school, there's good news and bads news for those of us teaching information literacy skills in secondary school.

According to the study, college students' first choice for information gathering is NOT Google, but either course reading or library-vetted sites such as databases (see diagram). Contrary to the much-quoted Pew findings that 71% of students use the internet as their only source for research, Head's study found that only 10% of students accessed Google or Yahoo! as their first step in the research process, and 20% as their second step. Intriguing, since the Pew study focused on 12-17 year olds, while Head studied college students. Can one draw the conclusion that students, or at least those who are college bound, actually do learn to seek better sources of information by the time they graduate from high school?

Unfortunately, the bad news is that while students recognized the need for "good, citable stuff," they had considerable trouble finding and recognizing it. I found especially troublesome the comment,
The issue of credibility came out in the discussion groups where students expressed their difficulty in determining authority and credibility of some public Internet sites. One participant, longed for what he called, “stamps of approval,” where none existed, and desired “some sort of symbol that all sites could use to show that their content is professor–approved and that the source is credible.”
To me, this sounds like a student spoon fed on NetTrekker, never learning how to critically analyze websites for authority or credibility, and adds evidence for the ever-increasing claims that filtering does students a HUGE disservice. Instead of creating confident, intelligent managers of internet resources, who are able to use and adapt information to their needs, they create students reliant on pre-vetted sites who lack the skills to a) find relevant information and b) determine its credibility.

Equally worrisome, "Students faced certain obstacles, including how to begin assignments, meet professors’ expectations from one class to the next, and narrow down a topic and make it manageable."

Where are we failing here? Where are the various research models not preparing students for independent research, whether Eisenberg or Kulhthau or whomever? Or is it that not enough schools are embedding these models across the curriculum?

Or, from another angle, are our research projects too teacher focused, rather than learner focused? Do we walk them through the steps, never allowing students to actively engage in task analysis and problem solving? Head's study claims that students consistently complained about not enough guidance on research projects. Have they become too used to the step-by-step handouts we tend to use in secondary education (much like the one I attached for the documentaries?)

These are questions I've been wrestling with the past few months, and they're important. We need to find the answers if we're going to prepare students not just for college, but for life.

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