Beyond Google: How do students conduct academic research?
First Monday

Beyond Google: How do students conduct academic research? by Alison J. Head



Abstract
This paper reports findings from an exploratory study about how students majoring in humanities and social sciences use the Internet and library resources for research. Using student discussion groups, content analysis, and a student survey, our results suggest students may not be as reliant on public Internet sites as previous research has reported. Instead, students in our study used a hybrid approach for conducting course–related research. A majority of students leveraged both online and offline sources to overcome challenges with finding, selecting, and evaluating resources and gauging professors’ expectations for quality research.

Contents

Introduction
Methods
Results
Discussion
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction

The growing buzz about the omnipotence of Google left us wondering, what do students think about conducting research for course assignments today?

Last spring, a team of faculty and campus librarians conducted an insider’s view of the student’s research process. We explored existing assumptions about students’ reliance on the Internet for carrying out course–related research.

We studied three primary areas of the student research process:

  1. How do students define and conceptualize the research process?

  2. How do students conduct research tasks (i.e., where do they look for materials, how much time do they spend, and how do they determine quality during the evaluation of resources)?

  3. What barriers and obstacles do students encounter while conducting course–related research?

 

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Methods

Our research study was conducted at Saint Mary’s College of California (SMC). The campus is a Catholic, Lasallian Christian Brothers’ liberal arts institution in Moraga, California. Enrollment is 2,489 undergraduates and 1,473 graduates with a 12:1 student–to–teacher ratio (Saint Mary’s Factbook, 2007).

We used an information–seeking behavior approach to collecting data in our study. We gathered data about students’ experiences, searching behaviors, and obstacles encountered, while using online and offline resources for academic research.

Our sample of humanities and social science majors were more likely to be acquainted with secondary research than science majors, who conduct laboratory research. We studied upper division students because they were more seasoned with the research process than lower division students.

Data collection and analysis

From January through May 2007, we conducted our research in three phases:

Phase One:

Student Discussion Groups: The total sample was 13 participants, who were upper division students majoring in humanities or social sciences. There was representation from students with majors in Communication, Politics, Economics, Liberal and Civic Studies, Health, and Psychology. Of the total, six were male and seven were female. Each session ran one and half–hours.

Phase Two:

Content Analysis: We collected 30 research assignment handouts used by professors in the last two years. Our sample of handouts was derived from courses from disciplines, including Anthropology/Sociology, Art, Communication, Economics, English, History, Kinesiology, Politics, Psychology, Religion, and Women’s Studies.

A coefficient of .90 or higher is considered “highly acceptable” for intercoder reliability. We used Krippendorf’s alpha (Krippendorf’s α), the most rigorous method for testing intercoder reliability (Krippendorf, 1980). Overall, our score was .928176. This means there was nearly a 93 percent degree of reliability in our coding between the coder’s individual decisions.

Phase Three:

Student Survey: We collected surveys from 178 student respondents. Students reported majoring in Anthropology and Sociology, Classical Languages, Communication, Economics, English and Drama, History, Kinesiology, Liberal and Civic Studies, Health, Performing Arts, Politics, Psychology, and Religious Studies.

 

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Results

Major findings from our study can be summarized as follows:

  1. A majority of students began their research by consulting course readings or the library’s Web site for online access to scholarly journals. To a lesser extent, students used Yahoo!, Google, and Wikipedia as first steps.

  2. Most students consulted aggregated research resources — many of which had been identified for their scholarly quality by professors, librarians, or library databases.

  3. Many students were challenged by research tasks, especially selecting and evaluating information and figuring out professors’ expectations for quality research.

Inside the student’s research world

The most frequently assigned research assignment in humanities and social sciences classes was the four– to six–page argument paper. The argument paper required students to conduct scholarly research about a topic and present sound evidence that advanced a proposition.

Our discussion group data revealed a diverse swath of “real world” topics that students selected for their argument papers. Participants recalled writing about working mothers and feminism, Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, college athletes and self esteem, iPods and their impact on human isolation, teen suicide, divorce, Satanism, and the gay rights movement, among other topics.

First steps in the research process

Topics students selected for assignments were current and unfolding, and often received attention from public sites on the Internet. A rapidly updated communication channel, such the Internet, offered students information rarely found in books or most academic journals, which have longer publishing cycles.

Yet, the majority of students in our survey (40 percent) reported the first step they took during the research process was consulting a course textbook or other readings from class [1]. Students also began their research by accessing academic journals through the campus library’s Web site, using databases such as Expanded Academic Index, PsycInfo, and Link+ (23 percent).

 

Figure 1: What is the first step in the student research process?

Figure 1: What is the first step in the student research process?

 

Second steps in the research process

The second step students took varied, though most leveraged the Internet. Some students turned to the campus library’s Web site and accessed online resources from library–funded databases, such as Expanded Academic Index (24 percent). A smaller percentage reported turning to the Web and either used a search engine, such as Google or Yahoo! (20 percent) or Wikipedia, the online community encyclopedia, to narrow down their topic (four percent) [2].

Students’ challenges and obstacles

Despite the freedom to choose their own topics, students in our discussion groups considered course–related research “barely a tolerable task.” Most students surveyed spent one to five hours of time on research tasks (77 percent), often just days before a drop–dead due date.

A picture of the student research experience emerged from our survey data:

  1. Most students were confused by what college–level research entails. Students faced a variety of obstacles working against them, including their own procrastination with getting started on assignments (73 percent).

  2. Other challenges were related to accessing resource materials, especially what students described as their inability to narrow down topics and make them manageable (59 percent) and their tendency to become overwhelmed by the plethora of available resources (60 percent).

  3. Students felt they did not have enough information from professors to begin assignments (85 percent) and over two–thirds had difficulties gauging what professors wanted from one class to the next (67 percent).

Students suffered at the hands of their own procrastination.

Students suffered at the hands of their own procrastination. Many professors have long assumed the competing demands of a busy co–ed social life keeps students from their studies. But we found some additional explanations that help to understand why students, in their own words, procrastinate on assignments.

Students surveyed reported a lack of information from the assigning professor thwarted them the most, sometimes keeping them from beginning an assignment all together. We heard the same sentiment from participants: Trying to figure out what constituted a professor’s expectations for an assignment caused 12 out of 13 of the participants the most frustration.

Research assignment handouts

Many of the research assignment handouts we analyzed lacked necessary guidance and details to conducting quality research. As a whole, the handouts offered little direction about three stages essential to the research process: (1) Plotting the course for research, (2) crafting the quality research paper, and (3) preparing the paper, adhering to a certain grading criteria and citation standards.

A large percentage of the assignment handouts offered no guidelines for consulting the Web (87 percent) or the campus library’s Web site (73 percent) for research. A majority of the handouts also made no mention of consulting with a reference librarian (83 percent) or using library resources from the shelves (70 percent).

What helps students succeed?

Students reported they had the best chance of succeeding (i.e., getting a good grade) when these options were available:

  1. Turning in drafts of papers, reviewed with comments added by the professor and then rewritten and resubmitted by the student (82 percent).

  2. Individual sessions with librarians for narrowing down unwieldy research topics (68 percent).

  3. One–on–one professor to student coaching sessions, focusing on how to overcome obstacles with conducting research (72 percent).

 

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Discussion

Recent research has made claims about students’ reliance on the Internet for academic research over their use of campus libraries.

Research from the “Pew Internet & American Life Project” reported that nearly three–quarters (73 percent) of college students reported using the Internet for research more than the campus library (Jones, 2002). Other findings suggest a vast majority of students turn to the Internet first for academic research (Griffiths and Brophy, 2005; Van Scoyoc, 2006). Further, some authors have claimed students use commercial search engines, such as Google, and bypass the library’s many complexities all together (Thompson, 2003).

Yet, our study did not substantiate earlier claims about the Internet cannibalizing academic library use. Instead, we found:

  1. Students used the library and considered library resources helpful — both the reference librarians and databases from the library Web site.

  2. A majority of students were not as reliant on search engines, as prior research studies have suggested. Only about one in 10 students in our survey reported using to Yahoo! or Google first when conducting research. Only two in 10 students in our survey used search engines as a second step.

Students faced problems when trying to narrow down research topics and make them manageable. Yet, they sparingly used Wikipedia in their research processes.

Most participants doubted whether blogs would even be acceptable resources to use for college–level research work.

None of our discussion group participants used blogs, or considered them reliable sources. Since anyone could contribute an entry on blog, just like Wikipedia, students were concerned about reliability. Most participants doubted whether blogs would even be acceptable resources to use for college–level research work.

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.”

A hybrid approach to research

We found course–related research was confusing and frustrating for most students, despite the convenience, ease, or ubiquity of the Internet. To succeed, a majority of students used a hybrid approach to conducting secondary research. Students balanced their high–tech use with their high–touch need for learning what constitutes scholarly research through one–on–one exchanges with professors and librarians.

Students in our discussion groups described devising a “tried and true” research strategy for locating scholarly research. This approach focused on accessing research materials from the library Web site or course readings.

One explanation for students’ research approach may be students intentionally sought out vetted resources. Such filtered sources are more likely to meet professors’ expectations for quality research standards we found were poorly described in professors’ research handouts. Another related explanation is students do not know how to find quality research sources using public sites on the Internet. Consequently, students counted on reliable aggregators to filter and select materials for them (i.e., professors, librarians, and vendor databases).

In their hybrid research strategy, students also relied on individualized training from librarians and professors. 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 — worries an Internet search does not frequently quell. To a lesser extent, students reported problems with determining the credibility of resources and avoiding plagiarizing materials.

One explanation for students’ strategy for hands–on help is to close the gap between what students know about research and what professors expect them to know. Some previous research supports this claim: Faculty and librarians have, unknowingly and inaccurately, assumed the students’ research process is similar to their own (Leckie, 1996). Other research has described a gap between what professors define as quality research in class lectures and what resources students end up using in assignments (Grimes and Boening, 2001).

Overall, students face challenges with locating “good, citable stuff,” especially when gleaning materials from pubic sites on the Internet for research assignments.

Though students clearly have an avid use of MySpace and YouTube, this does not mean college–aged students are natural–born researchers.

Many young people may have been exposed to computers since birth and considered “naturals” with technology. Though students clearly have an avid use of MySpace and YouTube, this does not mean college–aged students are natural–born researchers (Fitzgerald, 2004). Conducting secondary research remains a formidable task, learned through coaching and honed with practice — a fact librarians have known for a long time.

 

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Conclusions

This study explored assumptions about how students, majoring in humanities and social sciences, used the Internet for course–related research. Our data revealed the student research process is more complex than a Google search and a scant perusal of a results page, as some research has suggested.

A majority of students do not understand what quality research resources are and how to locate them. As a result, students seek a balanced approach to course–related research, leveraging both online and offline resources.

We found students: (1) accessed convenient, vetted, and aggregated online resources from course readings and the campus library Web site, (2) to a lesser extent, used Internet sites, such as Yahoo!, Google, and Wikipedia, and (3) worked with professors or librarians one–on–one to narrow down searches and clarify expectations for assignments.

Whether these findings hold with students from other campuses is unclear. Further research needs to be conducted on campuses with different study populations. Nevertheless, data presented in this paper may help inform discussion about students’ competencies for locating, selecting, evaluating and using information — competencies developed over time and essential for lifelong learning [3].

Recommendations

We offer three recommendations, based on our findings, for improving the student research process in a digital age:

  1. Research assignment handouts disseminated to students should include details about expectations for conducting quality research, including the use of the Internet.

  2. Professors and librarians should recognize students’ needs for individualized coaching, so that students’ abilities to find, select, and evaluate resources may be improved.

  3. Above all, the value of “high touch” interactions (human–mediated) with students in addition to “high tech” interactions (computer–mediated) should not be underestimated. End of article

 

About the author

Alison J. Head, Ph.D. is this study’s Principal Investigator. She is the Roy and Patricia Disney Visiting Professor of New Media in the Communication Department at Saint Mary’s College of California (SMC) in Moraga, California and an industry expert in usability research.
E–mail: ajhead1 [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Acknowledgements

Research Associates Neeley Silberman, Sarah Vital, Micheline Sabatte, and Margaret Dick generously contributed their time to this research study. Karen Schneider and Nancy Tomaro made insightful recommendations for this paper. This study was sponsored with funds from the SMC Library and the SMC Communication Department. A full report of the study is available at http://library.stmarys-ca.edu/features/SMCInfoLit.pdf.

 

Notes

1. Students in our survey (40 percent), and less so, in our discussion groups (15 percent). reported turning to course readings first for academic research. Although professors and librarians may define course–related research as identifying, evaluating, and using “outside references,” our student sample considered class readings a logical first step in their research process, especially as they tried to narrow down a topic and determine the scope of their papers.

At first, a majority of students in our discussion groups reported using Yahoo! or Google as their first step in their research processes. However, further discussion with the participants revealed their search engine searches often proved useless.

2. At first, a majority of students in our discussion groups (47 percent) reported using Yahoo! or Google as their first step in their research processes. However, further discussion with the participants revealed their search engine searches often proved useless. Consequently, their “first step” also included consulting more fruitful sources, such as talking with a professor, consulting a course reading, and accessing materials from the library Web site. The finding about search engine use from our discussion group was not substantiated in our student survey (13 percent used a search engine first). This is because we clarified the wording on the survey and increased the sample size for more valid findings.

3. Much of the discussion about students’ skills sets for conducting research involves the topic of information literacy. For a much more detailed definition and discussion of what information literacy means, see the American Library Association’s “Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education,” at http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/informationliteracycompetency.htm, accessed 20 April 2007. Another informative discussion can be found in David Bawden (2001). “Information and digital literacies: A review of concepts,” Journal of Documentation, volume 57, number 2, pp. 218–259. For further discussion of information literacy standards and measures, see Lori Arp, Beth S. Woodard, Joyce Lindstrom, and Diana D. Shonrock, 2006. “Faculty–librarian collaboration to achieve integration of information literacy,” Reference & User Services Quarterly, volume 46, number 1, pp.18–23 and Kathleen Dunn, 2002. “Assessing information literacy skills in the California State University: A progress report,” Journal of Academic Librarianship, volume 28 (January–March), pp. 26–35.

 

References

Lori Arp, Beth S. Woodard, Joyce Lindstrom, and Diana D. Shonrock, 2006. “Faculty–librarian collaboration to achieve integration of information literacy,” Reference & User Services Quarterly, volume 46, number 1, pp.18–23.

Kathleen Dunn, 2002. “Assessing information literacy skills in the California State University: A progress report,” Journal of Academic Librarianship, volume 28 (January–March), pp. 26–35.

Mary Ann Fitzgerald, 2004. “Making the Leap from High School to College,” Knowledge Quest, volume 32, number 4 (March/April), pp. 19–24.

Jillian Griffiths and Peter Brophy, 2005. “Student searching behavior and the Web: use of academic resources and Google,” Library Trends, volume 53, number 4, pp. 539–554.

Deborah J. Grimes and Carl H. Boening, 2001, “Worries with the Web: A look at student use of web resources,” College and Research Libraries, volume 62, number 4 (January), pp. 11–23.

Steve Jones, 2002. “The Internet goes to college: how students are living in the future with today’s technology,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, at http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/71/report_display.asp, accessed 19 May 2007.

Klaus Krippendorf, 1980. Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, p. 134.

Gloria Leckie, 1996. “Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process,” Journal of Academic Librarianship, volume 22, number 3 (May), pp. 201–208.

Saint Mary’s Factbook, 2007, at http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/about/fact_book/toc.html, accessed 19 May 2007.

Christen Thompson, 2003. “Information illiterate or lazy: How college students use the Web for research,” Libraries and the Academy, volume 3, number 2 (April), pp. 259–268.

Anna M. Van Scoyoc, 2006. “The electronic academic library: Undergraduate research behavior in a library without books,” Libraries and the Academy, volume 6, number 1 (January), pp. 47–58.

 


 

Editorial history

Paper received 25 May 2007; accepted 10 July 2007.


Contents Index

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Beyond Google: How do students conduct academic research? by Alison J. Head
First Monday, volume 12, number 8 (August 2007),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_8/head/index.html





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