Posted by: mhdiaz | March 4, 2011

How Students are Doing Research Now

This guest post is the second in a new six-part series from Jane Burke,  Discovery and the User Experience, which focuses on the latest developments in discovery and their potential to impact academic library user communities.   

Posts will occur weekly through the end of March.  I hope that you will enjoy the series and look forward to your comments.  Mike


So, last week I noted that most students’ perception of the library is less than outstanding.  

Part of that perception, I think, is that the library is time-consuming.   Student researchers feel that it will take a long time to plow through the various resources.  And many of them think those resources are still print resources – after all, the library brand is “Books”.

Or …they might have tried to use the library’s electronic resources and been put off by an overwhelmingly long list of databases.  Aaron is an example.  This is an actual research session that we recorded during the “anthropological research” that ProQuest conducted in 2007-2008.   Aaron tries valiantly to locate library databases relevant to his topic, which is the treatment of Hurricane Katrina in the mainstream and alternative press.  (Note:  this is about 4 minutes long, and it is painful.)

Despite his obvious belief that there must be suitable library resources and despite his persistence, Aaron ends up bailing to the open web.  The library is uniformly perceived as having credible and valuable resources, but is not simple, easy, fast to navigate – not like Google. 

The reality is that students simply do not have time for a complicated research process.  Today’s students have many demands on their time.  Research by American Council on Education found that 78% had a job while undergraduates.  Between class, work, studying (aside from research) and a social life, today’s students are not able to devote a lot of time to the research process.   Plus, they are increasingly distracted by the constant stream of inputs from the technologies with which they surround themselves.

And they know it.  One of the early findings of Project Information Literacy is that students think of themselves as procrastinators.  They admit that they do not begin their research early in the assignment.

…the majority of students we interviewed did not start on an assignment—thinking about it, researching, or writing—until two or three days before it was due.

Most of the students we interviewed—8 out of 10—were self-described procrastinators. There was a strong consensus among students that they waited until course-related research assignments were nearly due to begin or to really expend time and effort on an assignment. That is, a large majority of students reported spending three hours on research and anothertwo hours on writing—one or two days before a 5-7 page course-related research paper was due.

…we found more than 80% of students interviewed procrastinated on more than 80% of their course-related research assignments.

What this means is that they don’t have time to learn how to navigate a long, complicated resource list on the library’s home page, assuming they can find the library’s home page.

EDUCAUSE has studied this generation of students and their use of library resources.  Several of their reports point out an important aspect in serving the millennials:  this generation of students will not ask for help.  They believe that they know how to search – after all, they know how to search Google.  They simply expect – and rightly so, I would offer – that all searching for information works like Google.  

Another Project Information Literacy (PIL) Report, Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age, provides more details, noting that students rely first on course readings and then Google, before going to such resources as databases.   Very few answered that they would ask a librarian.  It is simply not in the DNA of these future researchers.

Yet, as I said last week, all is not lost.  Underneath their distractions and their procrastination is a firmly rooted belief in the value of the library and in library resources.   In the above PIL report, 88% reported ultimately using scholarly databases.  In the ProQuest research with undergraduates, the results were very “nourishing”, too.

When asked about the superior source for quality, credible content, the library won hands down.

The library was also the clear winner as preferred for academic research and course assignments, which we believe speaks to both quality and efficiency, while admitting that faculty requirements probably are a factor, too.  And as these students become graduate and doctoral researchers, their loyalty to library resources has the potential to become even stronger.  

As I said last week, there is very solid base here.  The trust and belief in the value of the library and its resources is there.   We just need to remove the obstacles that prevent the actualizing of that belief.


Head, Alison J., and Michael Eisenberg. Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say About Finding Information in the Digital Age. Rep. Seattle: Project Information Literacy, 2009.

Head, Alison J., and Michael Eisenberg. Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age. Rep. Seattle: Project Information Literacy, 2009.

Working Their Way Through College: Student Employment and Its Impact on the College Experience. May 2006. ACE Issue Brief. Washington, DC.

In the next segment of this series, Jane will discuss the User Expectations Gap and its implications.


  1. […] Read entire post online here. […]

  2. I have seen the same thing with high school students. My students want to use databases and find great information but the databases are so unwieldy and time consuming. The teachers bring them to the school library so that I can show them the database options. As I am showing them how to access the resources from the public library and “Infohoio” I can see their eyes glaze over.

    A typical demonstration goes like this: I logon to the library homepage, click on resources, click on database list, choose the database to use and then click on it. Enter my search terms and wait for results. Sometimes I have to put in my library card number and sometimes not. By the time I have found my results, students who are googling the same topic have already looked at 2 or 3 websites.

    Most of the students will admit that the journal articles etc that I found are superior, but they just don’t have the patience to do this kind of searching when they can find adequate information on the web.

  3. Does using a library’s online catalog have any advantages over doing a simple internet search–advantages that can be made clear to students and teachers? To my mind, there is at least one key and compelling advantage: You can access the full text of many key information sources only through libraries, which have licensed them for the FREE use of their patrons.

    But how many people are aware of this? I’m thinking of a high school or college student who searches on Google or Yahoo and finds the abstract or first page of an article that seems to be exactly what they’re looking for. Then they see the sentence “To read more of this article, you must be a registered user” or “you must subscribe. . .” and quickly go elsewhere—they’re not about to pay. It never occurs to them that their library might have the information source, or other ones equally valuable for their purposes, available for their free use.

    If libraries (both public and university) better advertised this advantage—FREE access to primary sources—they might win back the students who now just use Google searches as their only way of searching for information and Wikipedia as their default information source.

  4. Response from Jane Burke:

    Thanks Daniel –

    You are exactly right that easy availability of full text is a critical advantage of library resources. Today’s enhanced discovery systems help to address this by focusing promotion on a single library “digital front door” which offers access to the full depth and breadth of library resources. Libraries can also focus their efforts on maximizing the experience at the library front door, which is what ultimately will help to drive returning users.

    Promotion of this benefit is critical. Your idea about promoting the FREE aspect not only draws people to the discovery service; it also highlights that it is the library at acquires all of those resources.


%d bloggers like this: