Friday, October 05, 2007

Article Note: On Library Instruction and Student Term Papers

Citation for the article:

Hurst, Susan and Joseph Leonard. "Garbage In, Garbage Out: The Effect of Library Instruction on the Quality of Students' Term Papers." Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship 8.1 (Spring 2007).

Available online in the link above. A hat tip to the Information Literacy Land of Confusion.

While the article confirms that library instruction has a positive effect on students using more varied sources in their papers, the study does leave the question open of whether there is any effect on the actual grades the students get. The question of grades is one that may need further exploration, and according to the authors, provides an opportunity to look at actual course requirements to find more opportunities to emphasize and reward better research.

The article itself is a pretty easy read. The authors basically present their data in tables and provide brief discussion of the results. The study is a citation analysis of student bibliographies. The literature review provides a brief but good overview of previous work in this area, which lays a foundation for further work as well.

Some notes from the introduction. As usual, the stuff in quotation marks comes from the article. The rest is mine.

  • "Because today's undergraduates are skilled at surfing the web, it is often assumed that they will be equally proficient in locating data needed for their papers and assignments/ Despite their web-surfing skills and technological acumen, however, students may still not know how to effectively search and locate research articles on a topic." This is pretty much the mantra of every other article on this topic that I have read. I know it from experience as an instruction librarian, and I am sure my colleagues know it as well. Conveying this to the faculty is a different matter since a few do make this assumption.
  • "Another problem is that while it is assumed that students are taught how to use the library during an introductory English course or through a library orientation, this is frequently not the case." Again, see my remarks above. I would also add that even when the students do get such an orientation, if they lack opportunities to practice the skills they were shown in the orientation session, they will not remember them later on.
The hypotheses for this study were as follows:

  • #1: "Students in the sections that receive library instruction will be more likely to cite a larger number of sources overall, use a greater variety of resources, and cite resources located using library tool, (e.g. the catalog or databases), than the students in the sections that did not receive instruction." This hypothesis was proven by the study. It did find students who had a library session did use a more varied set of sources and got them from places like databases.
  • #2: "Students in the sections that received library instruction would earn higher grades on their term papers than the students not receiving the instruction." This was not proven. Though the students who got instruction scored about a point higher, that is not statistically significant.
The study was based on three International Business classes: two that got instruction and one that did not (the control). Note that "no specific requirements were given for the bibliographies for any of the sections. The students were encouraged to use a variety of resources, both print and electronic, but there were no required numbers or types or sources mandated." The bibliographies from the papers were collected and analyzed. You can read article for the specific methodology.

Some of the things the study found:

  • It found that students "can only use resources that they know about. While the library website is as user-friendly and accessible as possible, it still increases usability to have a demonstration, particularly one tailored to the specific resources that are more likely to be useful for a particular assignment." On the one hand, this may not be great news for those librarians who are all about 2.0 and putting everything online. Guess what? If the students don't know it is there, they won't use it. On the other hand, this is where good marketing comes in. Instruction is one way to do it. However, other ways of publicity on campus to promote a library's website and its resources would be useful as well. Maybe it is time to focus a bit more on raising awareness of the resources that are already available and little less on adding yet another bell or a whistle to a website.
  • "Those that had received library instruction utilized proportionally more journal articles and databases, and fewer Internet sites, with the differences being statistically significant."
  • "By demonstrating these resources to the students through library instruction, they became aware of them and subsequently used them to locate information for their research papers."
  • However, here is the not so good news: "Thus, although those in the group that received library instruction did indeed cite more scholarly sources and more types of sources, this did not result in an improved grade for either the paper itself or for the course overall." It is not good news because often we tell students that they may get a better grade if they use better sources. It turns out, at least from this study, that those who mostly used the Internet pretty much did as well as those who used library resources. Thus, the the cynical student would be able to say, "why do I need the library?" Given this study, it would not be easy to give a clear answer.
Yet I think the answer lies elsewhere. The authors hint at it when they suggest designing better assignments and emphasizing more research of higher quality in classes. The "out," so to speak, is that the class used in the study was a business class that did not require extensive use of scholarly sources. A lot of what was needed was material like company information, some of it easily available on the web. So, I wonder if this result would have been different for a different subject area where more scholarly research would actually be necessary (social and hard sciences, for example).

Do note also that the papers used in the study were not graded "explicitly according to the number or types of resources cited." So, there was no real reward for the student who used better sources. This brings me to question how much critical thinking skills were involved in the assignment. One would think, and the authors agree, that better sources would lead to a better analysis, and a better analysis, to a better grade. But the study does not bear that out. Therefore, as an educator, I wonder if the answer may not be someplace else. Maybe higher expectations from the professor and from the course? Maybe looking at a more critical pedagogy? But it is not just critical thinking. It is knowing what to do with what you learn. Here and here are some previous readings I have done that may shed some further light. The grade issue may be something to explore further. Then again, if we say that grades are not the most important thing, but the learning, then we still need to be asking these questions. Did the students really learn what they were supposed to learn, or did they just regurgitate whatever they were given in a class? Overall, a good study, but it still leaves open questions.

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