Keynote Presentation: Dr Alison Head – Truth Be Told: How Today’s Students Conduct Research
Our second day at LILAC started with a keynote speech from Dr Alison Head, a research scientist from the Information School at the University of Washington. Alison spoke about a research project that she had undertaken to investigate the information seeking skills of HE students who had been born into the digital age. She had been interested to learn more about how today’s students approach the practice of research and what librarians can do to support them. As a former journalist, she decided to blend journalism with scholarly research and take the approach of collecting interviews from students about their information seeking strategies and aptitudes with regard to information literacy.
Based on her findings, Alison identified the following key points:
- Students often feel confused, overwhelmed and stressed as a result of information overload, particularly upon making the transition from school to HE. The HE information landscape is very large and students can feel daunted by the amount of information and number of resources that are available.
- Students indicated that the hardest element of a research project was getting started. Defining and narrowing a topic, before the start of the search process, was seen to be very challenging.
- Students found it difficult to define the context of their research enquiry. They felt that it was important to have an understanding of the ‘big picture’ in order to gather information about their topic, but they struggled to locate relevant sources of background information. First year undergraduates in particular struggled as they didn’t have a sense of what information was available or how to navigate it. Some students also had difficulty identifying keywords due to the new terminologies associated with studying a subject at HE level. In addition, students were unsure how far to go in terms of researching the surrounding circumstances for their topic and they had a tendency to do more research than was necessary.
- Students had a tendency to repeatedly use the same few sources in their research projects. Feedback from the interviews indicated that, in order of preference, the following were the favoured sources of information: course readings, internet search engines, library databases, course instructors and Wikipedia. According to the data gathered in one of the project surveys, approximately 30% of students went to a librarian for help with their course research. Students were much more likely to rely on their course readings than attempt to find their own research sources for their chosen topic. Similarly, students were much more likely to favour sources that were convenient and close-at-hand.
- Students saw Wikipedia as a ‘presearch’ tool which they could use to attain a summary of a topic before getting started on an assignment. Wikipedia was popular with students due to its user friendly interface and its comprehensive explanations of unfamiliar terms or concepts. They also liked the fact that most articles included a citation trail as this helped them to build up their understanding of the background to their research topic. As such Wikipedia was seen as a utility which could help to jumpstart the research process.
- Students felt that it was their lecturers, rather than librarians, who held the knowledge about how to conduct research. However, Alison suggested that this was not necessarily the case. As part of her project, she collected 191 assignment hand-outs from lecturers and found that few offered any guidance on the research process. The majority recommended a place-based resource, usually a particular book within the library and not necessarily one with multiple copies. Only a small number of the hand-outs recommended consulting a librarian, despite the fact that many of the lecturers used librarians for support with their own research. Alison argued that research is rarely a linear process where you move from A to B and find the answer; rather, research is about finding hints and clues by visiting and revisiting different sources of information and then piecing your paper together. She argued that students often did not have an understanding of this process.
- Students saw the library as a “refuge” as they found that they were more productive and less distracted when studying using the library computers as opposed to when they studied at home. However, the interviews showed that a low number of students actually went to librarians for help with their research projects. When they did ask for help, the most common queries were about finding particular materials, or deciphering complex language in order to identify keywords.
Based on the results of her project, Alison identified a number of ways that libraries could support students. She argued that students were often busy and overloaded, and therefore the provision of on-demand information services was a priority for them. She also argued that since many students struggled to define their research topics and to develop their contextual knowledge, it was better to embed information searching seminars within courses rather than to have them divorced from course content.
Canoodling with Careers: Cross-Team Working in Information Literacy
My first parallel session of the day was presented by two librarians and a careers consultant from the University of Derby. The library department there was co-located with the careers department and the staff had been working together to develop and deliver an integrated programme of information literacy instruction. The idea behind this was to pool resources in cases where departments were promoting similar or complementary skill sets. The session took the form of a workshop and we were given the opportunity to seek advice on IL issues from other delegates and to brainstorm ideas on the cross-departmental teaching of IL skills.
The first part of the workshop was a “speed-dating” exercise during which we moved around the room and either requested or shared IL advice with a wide number of people. I requested advice on how to improve student attendance at voluntary IL workshops and was unfortunately told that this was impossible! One person recommended that the workshops could instead be run as mini lessons within core module lectures. Another person suggested that student ambassadors could be trained in IL skills to enable them to pass these skills on to their peers, and that this could be an alternative method of IL delivery. I am not sure how this would work in a consistent way in practice, but it could certainly form part of a wider programme of information literacy instruction.
During the second part of the workshop we worked in groups to create a mind map that brought together solutions and actions on a given topic. Our topic was on approaches to teaching overlapping skill sets within support teams. We thought that social media was a good example of an overlapping skill set, as this often fell within the teaching remit of both library and careers departments. For example, libraries might want to promote social media as a research and current awareness tool, whereas careers departments might want to promote it as a tool for networking or to teach students about maintaining a positive online reputation or e-portfolio. To prevent duplication, we considered that it would be beneficial in cases like this for departments to share ideas, as well as to promote each other’s sessions and draw attention to links between the sessions when teaching students.
The purpose of a TeachMeet is to give teaching librarians the opportunity to meet and share successful teaching ideas or projects. In this TeachMeet session, the hall was laid out with a number of tables and we each had to choose a table to sit at for 10 minutes to listen to a mini presentation. After 10 minutes a buzzer would sound, which was the signal to switch tables and choose a new mini presentation. This was quite a fast paced LILAC session due to the fact that we managed to cram eight mini presentations into the space of an hour and a half, but it was a good opportunity to learn about the ideas and innovations which other librarians were using in their teaching practice.
Here is a selection of short summaries of some of the mini presentations that I attended:
Referencing: finding the missing piece
The presenter introduced us to a more interactive way of teaching referencing to students. Rather than delivering a lecture, she had created a kind of referencing jigsaw by printing out four references from different source types in a large font and cutting them up into their constituent parts. She had also printed out some extra referencing information that was not required for the particular style she was teaching, as well as some wrong information. All the pieces got put into envelopes and students had to work in groups to assemble the four correct references, with the winners receiving a prize.
Apparently the students were quite enthusiastic about this exercise as they enjoyed competing against the other groups. The presenter pointed out that the group discussions were also useful as these gave her an insight into what students struggled with regard to referencing. She suggested that the exercise could be made more relevant to particular groups of students by selecting real referencing examples from their course reading lists.
Research court in session: actively learning information evaluation skills
In this session the presenter described an exercise which aimed to help students learn how to evaluate information sources before citing them in an essay. The librarian split the class into teams and instructed each team to give a presentation about a given information source, with the aim of convincing their classmates to use the source in their work. The information sources were assigned to each team by the librarian and included examples of both good and poor sources. Following their presentation, each team was cross-examined by the rest of the class, who were encouraged to be sceptical about each other’s information sources. The aim was to encourage students to think critically about information before citing it in their work and to improve their skills in identifying good and poor resources. The presenter reported that this kind of active learning had increased student engagement with the topic.
Library inductions on the go – delivering library induction via mobile devices
I had anticipated that this mini session might be about the creation of a mobile app to support library inductions, but instead the project was about the creation of an induction website with an interface that was designed to be compatible with mobiles. The team from Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, who were responsible for developing the website, had decided that a mobile app might be a problematic method of delivery as not all students had access to a smart device. In addition, the team felt that they did not possess the necessary technical expertise to develop an app which was compatible across different platforms.
Instead, they developed an online induction via a website, the aim of which was to enable students to access information about the Oxford libraries at their point of need. The content of the website was generated based on feedback from student focus groups and included topics such as borrowing, printing, finding information, and reading lists. The website was used to support the traditional face-to-face inductions and tours, and librarians found it useful to be able to refer students to the general information given on the website as this enabled them to give a face-to-face induction that was more specifically tailored to their own library or subject. This helped to avoid repetition where students might be attending inductions at more than one of the Oxford libraries.
A recession-proof information literacy strategy
A library team from the University of Bolton wanted to increase IL competencies within their institution without the need for any additional funding or staff. In order to do this, they redeveloped an existing online study skills tutorial and embedded their IL framework into it. The name of the product that they redeveloped was BISSTO (Bolton Interactive Study Skills Tutorial Online). In order to redevelop it, they broke the content down into sections and incorporated self-assessment IL tests, as well as developing a new interface using the institution’s web management software. Having launched the project last summer, the team were now evaluating student feedback with the aim of using this feedback to develop the content further. They were also measuring usage statistics via Google Analytics and were planning to promote the resource to academics to enable them to build it into their teaching sessions.
Drilling down to the core: collaborative core content creation
The library team at Leeds Metropolitan University were asked to design two generic modules on Research Practice and Project Management which could be used as templates by academics designing modules on these topics to support their specific subjects. The modules were intended to be delivered via the VLE and they contained activities for lecturers to use in their teaching, as well as links to useful online and printed resources, videos, library e-resources and catalogue records. It was essential for the modules to be of a high standard to enable lecturers to use and adapt the content. The team had received positive feedback on their work from academics and planned to develop further modules for use in teaching. One drawback of the project was the amount of staff time that it took to keep the modules up to date, particularly given that no additional staff or funding was available.
SADL Up: Putting Students in the Driving Seat for Digital Literacy
Following the LILAC TeachMeet, I attended a session on the Student Ambassadors in Digital Literacy (SADL) project, which was developed in order to help improve digital literacy amongst undergraduate students studying at LSE. The idea behind the project was to explore whether support for digital literacy might be improved through the creation of student ambassadors for digital literacy who could disseminate information to their peers.
The project was collaborative and involved a team of librarians, learning technologists, education developers and twenty undergraduate students from two different LSE academic departments. The students who volunteered were required to attend a number of developmental workshops in order to learn about different elements of digital literacy within the context of their discipline, and to discuss how they might share this knowledge with their peers. The topics they covered included searching, managing and sharing information, reading and writing within the context of their discipline, and managing their digital footprint. The students took part in questionnaires about their own research practices and competencies and were also given the opportunity to contribute to the development of new resources and to give feedback on the quality of existing resources and search tools.
The presenters reported that the project had challenged their generalised assumptions about the research practices of ‘digital natives’, as the results showed that the students all had different work strategies. In terms of the success of the project overall, the project team identified a number of lessons for the future:
- It was important to set out clear expectations for any student who volunteered to be a digital literacy ambassador. This included checking their understanding of what was required with regard to disseminating information to their peers, and setting them clearly defined tasks and activities.
- Developing good working relationships with the students takes time. During this project, an element of the teacher-student relationship needed to be overcome in order to achieve a more informal working environment which aided collaboration.
- Workshops required defined aims and objectives and a lot of preparation time, as well as an appropriate learning space.
- Students found it challenging to identify opportunities to communicate digital literacy information to their peers. They needed more opportunities and places to share their knowledge. Student mentoring was seen as one possibility for the future.
- At the start of the project, a blog was set up as a platform for the students to be able to share their ideas. However, there wasn’t as much engagement with the blog as the project team anticipated. Alternative platforms suggested were a Facebook group, Moodle or Padlet.
- In order to sustain momentum for the project, it had been important to increase publicity for it within academic departments and within the wider student body.
The SADL project was still currently ongoing, and the project team had plans to explore in greater detail the role that student ambassadors could play in the promotion of digital literacy information. They were also looking into ways to increase the size of the project by involving more departments in the future, as well as looking into how to make the project sustainable in the long term.
Little and Often: Exploring the Potential of Information Literacy Mini-Lessons
My final session of the day was a study on whether changing the mode of delivery for IL lessons could have a positive impact on students’ IL skills. The presenters from York St John University argued that giving information literacy instruction in a series of small, bite-size lessons could be a more effective approach than delivering one long session at the start of the semester when new students might already be suffering from information overload. They also argued that the timing of information literacy lessons is often not ideal, as students are given the instruction before they have a need for the information.
The presenters argued that the issues of timeliness and information overload could both be addressed by offering students a series of short IL sessions as an alternative. This would give students more opportunities to attend at times when it was most beneficial to them. The presenters had also conducted a literature review to find evidence that this approach was effective and had found a number of studies which showed this, including one study by Kornell and Bjork (2008) which argued that teaching a subject in an interleaved fashion at spaced out intervals helped students to learn better and get better results. However, the presenters pointed out that length of teaching time alone was not the key to success; rather it was the capacity to be more responsive to students’ needs and offer a diverse programme of more frequent IL sessions at the times when these were most required.
The presenters went on to describe a case study at their own institution where they were able to timetable a number of ten minute slots at the beginning of lectures to teach students about different aspects of information literacy. The project came about because lecturers were concerned that the students were not using academic sources appropriately in their assignments and so had requested some extra support for them. As there was no space in the existing timetable to incorporate a longer IL session, it was agreed that library staff could give a series of 10 minute presentations at the beginning of existing lectures.
Library staff presented these short 10 minute sessions on topics such as how to find literature to fit a specific need, the different types of information available, the places to look for information, and referencing sources to avoid plagiarism. Students were also offered the chance to come to the library for follow-up meetings if they wanted further tuition. Library staff found that students took them up on this offer and usually came to the library with a specific need which was applicable to their current assignment, such as identifying keywords or finding information sources. Alongside these extra one-to-one sessions, the library also provided short 60 second videos via Moodle which gave instructions on basic library tasks such as searching for a book.
Following the conclusion of the project, library staff received very positive feedback from the module leader; lecturers had noticed a big improvement in the students’ choice of resources, which had been appropriate and wide-ranging. The presenters reassured us that it hadn’t been difficult to persuade lecturers to let library staff teach within their existing classes once it was made clear that the sessions would only be 10 minutes long. The 10 minute sessions were also substantial enough provided that library staff were able to offer follow-up to the students via one-to-one sessions or via further information online.
I think it’s clear that the success of this project was not only due to the short and frequent method of delivery, but also to the fact that the library staff were able to embed their sessions within the students’ core modules, rather than offering them as an optional add-on. This could be seen as further evidence for the value of embedding IL teaching within the curriculum.
LILAC Conference Dinner
After the end of the second day, all the delegates attended the LILAC conference dinner at the very grand Cutler’s Hall in Sheffield. During the evening we also witnessed the award ceremonies for the 2014 CILIP IL Group Information Literacy Award and the Credo Reference Digital Award for Information Literacy (congratulations to Jane Secker and Georgina Dimmock!).
The evening was another great opportunity to catch up with former colleagues – I was pleased to run into the librarian from University College School who mentored me during the two week practical placement that I completed as part of my library Master’s degree at UCL (I have blogged about this here). It was also a great opportunity for a LILAC conference group selfie, which was clearly an opportunity not to be missed!