“Engaging first-year students in meaningful library research”

I finally got around to reading “Engaging first-year students in meaningful library research: A practical guide for teaching faculty” by Molly R. Flaspohler last week. Although I found nothing groundbreaking about it, it was a good read. Many of the issues presented in the book were well-known, but there is some comfort in knowing that others struggle with the same things.

Many students enter higher education without basic knowledge, like books have indexes and that there are different levels of academic journals etc. This means that students fall behind from the first day of school. Assignments are seen as something they do just to please the teacher, not as part of a learning process. Many show very little interest in research and learning processes.

Younger students, in the book often referred to as “Millenials” (i.e. “digital natives”, “gen Y” etc.), underestimate how much time it takes to read, evaluate, reflect, and effieciently use information. They do not use library databases, even when specifically asked to do so by their teachers, and they end up doing random Google searches. The library courses do not have the desired effect because students expect research to be quick and easy.

Questions we have often heard in the library:

  • Can you find a couple of sources for my bibliography? I have already written the paper, but I need a couple of sources..
  • Is it OK that all information for my paper was taken from the same website?

The lack of critical thinking abilities becomes a real problem for many. Students need thorough feedback on their texts and it is important that teachers and more advanced learners (like student peers) engage themselves in this process. We have to stop thinking that the new generation students have research skills just because they are tech savvy. (How true!)

Librarians often become the link between the student and the teacher. The students want the librarian to choose a topic for them, interpret assignments and formulate research questions. Teachers must predict the students` research problems – otherwise there will only be frustrations on all parties.  Most students have never been exposed to research before entering higher education. They are used to text books, suggested reading lists and lecture notes. They do not think they need an information seeking strategy, they only have a coping strategy. The students must be exposed to situations were they need these strategies. Practice makes perfect.

The destiny of the academic library depends on faculty staff. Success depends on collaboration. Teachers and librarians have different strenghts and weaknesses, and we need to understand eachothers roles better.

“The information literacy program should be introduced as an enterprise-wide solution to an enterprice-wide problem. To cathch the attention of faculty and academic administrators, information literacy must be a part of the academic effort rather than just a toolbox of skills that students learn in order to use the library” (p. 36)

So – how do we train the next generation of students? How do we get them to make sense of all the data? Students have a hard time asking relevant and fruitful questions, and to know the difference between knowledge, information and meaning. They generally assess information from three criteria: the source is easy to understand, the source is easy to find and the source is available.

Another intersting thing is that students do not see that information skills are important in their lives. They tend to think that everyone below a certain age is born with these skills and that everything can be self-taught.

Flaspohler uses Carol Kuhlthau`s model of the information search process to illustrate how students work with the information gathering, and how the students cognitive, affective and physical processes work during these steps. There is a lot of insecurity during the first steps of the process, and Flaspohler writes that these early stages are perfect for teacher and librarian intervention.

We must give the students assignments that feel relevant and meaningful in the students` lives, but it is hard to do because their backgrounds and previous experiences vary so much.

Flaspohler suggests several different pedagogical approaces to teaching:

  • Cognitive apprenticeships
  • Communities of practice
  • Discovery learning
  • Goal-based scenarios
  • Problem-based learning
  • Situated learning

The main topic of the book, however, is that collaboration between librarians and teachers is crucial to make any sort of impact on student learning when it comes to information skills. We need to form better networks and both formal and informal collaboration arenas.

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