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?