Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Desperately Seeking Citations

Leckie, G.J. (1996). Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 22, 201-208. Retrieved from

This is my Director's favorite article and understandably so. Our Library is fortunate to be integrated into the College's First-Year Seminar program. We have three graded library assignments based on an online tutorial that all first-year students are required to complete, and each seminar is required to hold at least one in-library workshop during the semester (several opt to have two). We also distribute pre- and post-tests to determine how much the students are learning from the assignments, tutorial, and in-library workshops. In addition to our involvement with the First-Year Seminar program, we have an active IL/BI program with other intermediate and advanced level undergraduate courses. We often notice that there is a disconnect between a student's actual level of understanding/competency in a particular discipline and the assumed level of understanding/competency on the part of the faculty. Reflecting upon my own undergraduate experiences, this certainly held true in both of my majors. (I remember conducting research for an intermediate-level foreign language course on Lexis-Nexis...this makes me cringe now that I realize I should have been using scholarly articles, not newspaper articles.) In this article Gloria J. Leckie discusses the reasons for this disconnect (using the research paper assignment as a foundation for her argument) and how librarians might be able to help remedy the situation. Although this article is over 10 years old, I think it is certainly applicable to undergraduate education today.

Leckie identifies "four distinct components" that contribute to this problem:
"Faculty and the 'expert researcher' model;
The research paper assignment and students' limitation;
Identifying faculty assumptions; and
The in-class experience." (202)

"The ['expert researcher'] model requires a long process of acculturation, an in-depth knowledge of the discipline, awareness of important scholars working in particular areas, participation in a system of informal scholarly communication, and a view of research as non-sequential, non-linear process with a large degree of ambiguity and serendipity." (202) Quite the opposite is true of novice, undergraduate researchers, which makes them develop a "coping strategy" rather than an "information-seeking strategy." (202)
Not only do undergraduates lack the in-depth knowledge of a given field in order to begin their research, they often do not understand the difference between various materials types (encyclopedias, magazines, books, scholarly journals, etc.) to know what is appropriate and what isn't. (204) (Note: Click here to read a "Keywords From a Librarian" blog entry on this topic.) In addition, faculty often limit acceptable resources for an assignment to scholarly articles often causing students to avoid encyclopedias and other sources of general background reading that might ultimately prove useful in their research endeavors. This has certainly happened to all of us at the reference desk. I recommend that a student starts with an encyclopedia article or two to gain some general background knowledge on his/her topic and receive the response "My professor said I'm not allowed to use an encyclopedia as a source." For most of us it is an exercise in futility to explain that you can use an encyclopedia article as a launching pad into more in-depth research that will ultimately provide that student with acceptable source types. Sometimes faculty forget what it is like to be starting research in a new field and discount resources created for this purpose as being inappropriate for the level of research they expect of their students.

It's possible that faculty are assuming that undergraduates are beginning their college careers with more research experience or skills than they actually have. Most high school students are required to write at least one research paper (or "term paper"), but perhaps this is not adequate preparation for what is expected of them in college. As a high school student, I was required to write at least 4 research papers. I can say with confidence that those papers did not prepare me to perform college-level research. In high school, one has a finite set of resources to use (small reference collection, small book collection, some articles, perhaps the public library), but the resource possibilities become almost endless in college. I had no idea where to begin. I could have easily asked a librarian for help, but I didn't know that was a possibility. I also probably would have not taken the time to ask a librarian when I was a freshman because I probably would have thought that it wouldn't have been worth the while. (This is my dirty librarian secret...I am sharing it with the world!)

This leads me to my next point (which Leckie also addresses in this article), which is time constraints (or perhaps time management) of undergraduates. Most undergraduate students take 4-5 courses per semester, and depending on the disciplines of these courses they could have 4-5 research papers to write at about the same time. Even for upperclassmen, this can be quite an overwhelming workload. (I am not suggesting it should be reduced, just pointing out that it is overwhelming.) For a first-year student even 2 research papers can be a overwhelming workload as they are acclimating to college life - both academically and socially. As students become overwhelmed, they can become both frustrated and impatient. Trying to juggle multiple assignments does not always allow them to dedicate patient reading of sources in order to select the best ones for their papers. This is when students resort to a "coping strategy" rather than an effective and efficient "information-seeking strategy."

How can librarians help remedy this situation? Leckie argues that faculty need to create a "stratified" research assignment, in which students complete the steps throughout the semester. (For example: selecting a topic, narrowing a topic, literature review/annotated bibliography, thesis statement with general outline, rough draft, final draft) But many faculty don't realize that their students struggle with research assignments, and they usually don't seek librarians' opinions. (Leckie writes, "...despite calls in the literature for librarians to be partners in research with the faculty, there is very little evidence that this is happening, or ever will happen." (205)) However, some librarians have started to transform the way in which faculty view their students' research abilities. I recently attended a meeting of the New England Library Instruction Group (NELIG) where Nicole Brown, Laura McCune-Poplin and Karen St. Clair gave a presentation about their experience in creating an "Information Literacy Faculty Learning Community" at Emerson College. This group met for 4 one-hour sessions to discuss how faculty and librarians can address the information literacy needs of students. The librarians "assigned" readings which were discussed at the sessions. One of the activities was for faculty members to choose one of their assignments and analyze it through the lens of information literacy. The presenters said the faculty enjoyed this activity and took away some new insights regarding students and the research process.

This article certainly gave me a lot to think about regarding my involvement in the First-Year Seminar program and general BI/IL programs as well as how I assist students at the reference desk. Discovering this disconnect and relating it to my own undergraduate experience helped me to better understand those who I am helping. I am hoping that this understanding will help me to become a better teacher and librarian.

Thank you for reading!

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