Thinking out loud: A service for topic exploration and presearching

I just finished reading the Project Information Literacy Report called “T R U T H B E T O L D:  How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age” (pdf link). In reading reports such as this, I try to reflect upon the information presented and how we might use the findings at my library.  While I pulled a lot of  quotes and statistics out of the article in my note taking, the main point that I took away from the article was that nearly two-thirds of all the students surveyed said the hardest part of doing research was selecting an adequate topic to research.  The article notes that students felt like they had plenty of topics to choose from, but many were unsure that the topic would meet the professor’s standards for the class assignment. As the article states:

for many students we interviewed, course-related research was difficult because it was more akin to gambling than completing college-level work. Yes, gambling. The beginning of research is when the first bets were placed. Choosing a topic is fraught with risk for many students. As one student acknowledged in interviews: either a topic worked well or it failed when it was too late to change it.  Add in the constraints of timing, grades, and too much available information to scour—and the  difficulties with beginning research are put into high relief. The odds of “winning” this bet are significantly compromised when these factors come into play.

Another troubling statistic, from a librarian’s perspective, is that “Students relied on librarians infrequently, if ever, whether they were conducting research for course work or for personal use. Moreover, students in this yearʼs sample reported using librarians less often than they reported in the 2009 survey results.”  Even with all of the different ways that students can ask us questions, and despite initiatives to make librarians as accessible as possible, the fact of the matter is that only around 30% of students used librarians for course-related research.  Also, only 11% used librarians to determine the quality of the resources they were using for their research projects.

When a student does ask us a question, odds are it goes something like, “Hi, I am looking for articles on  [insert topic here] and I am not finding anything.  Can you help?  My professor says they have to be research journals.”  Typically, librarians are very good at answering this sort of question and we almost always find something that will work for the topic.  But what if we played a bigger role from the start?  What if we helped them define their topics on the front end and also help them find some articles to make sure the topic works?  What if we had a service where students could make an appointment with a librarian to simply “Get Started”?  With that service, the librarian could meet with a student to go over the requirements of the professor’s assignment and then work with a student on finding topics that work with the assignment.  After the meeting, the librarian could  present the student with a standardized form that states the student’s class assignment, a list of possible topics, and a few key resources for each topic, that the student could then take back to the professor for final topic approval.  The form/worksheet would show the professor that the student did some presearching with a librarian to investigate topics and that the topics could be adequately researched and explored for the assignment.  The professor could then have final say over the topics and direct the student as needed.

This type of service could have quite a few benefits.  For the professor, hopefully he or she would see better papers as a result of students doing more research on the front end.  Also, because the librarian has taken the time to do some initial searching with the student, the professor could focus more on helping the student frame an argument and apply the content, all within the context of the class.  For the librarians, this type of service would enable them to see what types of paper and research topics are being assigned, leading to additional conversations about research/information literacy/library skills with faculty members.  The meetings with the students also open up additional opportunities for follow-up consultations, and perhaps even referrals to the service by friends and classmates.  Finally, the librarians have an opportunity to market the library and the service with the form that the students show their professors for final topic approval.

In my head, and now on paper, the idea sounds pretty sound.  Perhaps this will be something we try in the near future, especially as we outline our goals this week for the coming calendar year.  Any thoughts?

7 thoughts on “Thinking out loud: A service for topic exploration and presearching”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t know how we (librarians and faculty) could have dropped the ball on this issue for so long, but as the Project IL report clearly shows, it’s a key weakness for many colleges and universities.

    I guess I would add one thing to your analysis, though. I agree that students are usually their own worst enemies when it comes to selecting, refining, and researching a topic because of the issues you listed. Sometimes, however, they are not to blame (or are only partially to blame). Instead, it’s the faculty member’s fault – at least in my experience. Sometimes, this is just a case of benign neglect. In other words the faculty member just assumes that the students will (a) understand all the “presearch” work that they need to do and (b) automatically go and consult with a librarian all on their own. Students, in most cases, are too reluctant to ask their instructor for more guidance so they close their eyes, take a shot in the dark, and hope that it all works out.

    In other situations, the students are set up to fail because the faculty member has assigned a poorly designed project or they are not clear about what their expectations are about the project. For example, I have seen research assignments where the faculty member has given the students very explicit instructions about how to complete the assignment, but the student’s can’t follow them because the library doesn’t (or no longer) subscribes to some of the required resources that are listed. When these situations arise, we tell the students that we’re willing to go and talk to the faculty member and explain to them why the student can’t complete the assignment. Usually, it’s not a problem, but I have had a couple of situations where the student would not tell me the instructor’s name – presumably because they didn’t want to rat out their instructor. Talk about your rock and hard place.

    I’d love to hear what you folks come up with if you decide to tackle this head on!

    Gary

  2. Chad, like Gary I do agree with this, and to a degree faculty are at fault sometimes. But in my opinion I do feel libraries could answer this problem by saying WHAT we do. Some students think all the answers can be found via the web and the library is regarded as an antiquated place to go. I, like others before me no doubt, have tried to push the envelope of showing what libraries can do by going out to the users. For example, I’m still trying to get where I work to have a youtube channel to show users how to use databases, catalogues etc. The result? We have a channel but no content. Sometimes we’re damned by others ineptitude in my lowly opinion.

  3. Btw, the initial idea does sound good, but within britain i must say, faculty have less face to face time with students, and therefore if they came in with the sheet etc, they may be:-
    a.annoyed
    b.not there.
    c. ignore it.

    I’m in a really festive mood (not) 😉

  4. I agree with the premise of this wholeheartedly. Instead of waiting until they’re at the point of desperation, we can help students get on the right track from the very beginning. There are just a few issues that I think we would face (at least here on my campus) if we pursued this type of service:
    1. Misjudging professor expectations. Gary hit the nail on the head. Very often professors have specific topics or guidelines for students that are not clearly communicated in assignment sheets. It’s understandable why students struggle with it! In order for me to feel comfortable advising students about topics, I would want to feel comfortable with the assignment itself. I think this could be solved if I took the time before to speak with each professor to gain insight about each assignment, but this can take considerable time and I may not get full cooperation from all professors.
    2. We have an academic tutoring service on campus. Students are strongly suggested/required to meet with tutors. Most times these sessions discuss the writing aspect of papers, but sometimes I know tutors help students develop topics. It would be problematic for me to start offering a similar service without speaking with this department first. I could train these tutors to be able to field topic-development questions. If I really feel that I need to be the one to handle the sessions, then I would need to ask these tutors to refer students to librarians when they face these types of questions.

  5. Thanks, all for the very useful comments. You are all correct in that this sort of service would definitely encourage (and perhaps require) more communication with faculty. With the standardized form that we would have, it would perhaps be good to have a space there for the student to articulate what they think the assignment is about, or , at the very least, require that the assignment come to us in writing (from a syllabus). As far as the clarity of the assignments is concerned, we as librarians are good at recognizing patterns in those unclear assignments. Librarians could serve as advocates for the students by politely pointing out the common sticking points that the students are having with the assignments. Most professors that I have talked to about their assignments have seemed pleased that I contacted them. I’ve always tried to frame my conversation in terms of “Can you help me understand your expectations for the assignment so that I can better help your students with their research needs?”. This often opens up conversations about resources that we may have as well as other relevant services. Again, thanks again to all for you valuable input!

  6. @Amanda
    Amanda, We have a Student Writing Center that sits about 75 feet from the Reference Desk. They do help students with topic exploration to a certain degree, but it’s generally in the form of helping them rephrase or define their thesis paragraph better. Generally by the time the students sits down at the writing center, he/she already has a paper written. We would definitely have a conversation with the Writing Center coordinator to make sure both services balance each other and fill in gaps as needed. Both services could also promote each other, as there could potentially be a nice symbiotic relationship there. Also, with shrinking budgets, shrinking staff, and more to do, departments and services are often looking for ways to partner with each other to share duties and increase efficiencies. This could be one of those partnerships. Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  7. I’ve only just scanned the survey, but perhaps we should also be asking why students are consulting librarians so infrequently. I had a student tell me they thought asking a librarian for anything more than directional help would be cheating because they weren’t “doing the research themselves”. Something to be considered.

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