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Building Effective Research Assignments


For most incoming students, the ICC library is the largest library they've ever used, and for almost all of them the organization of any academic library, with its myriad of online and print resources, is daunting. Furthermore, students new to college have little idea how to find, choose, and use academic sources in academic forms of discourse. Among the problems first year students face are these:

  • little previous exposure to scholarly writing; little understanding of the difference between magazines and scholarly journals; little experience with print periodicals at all.
  • little experience with reference books and no experience with specialized references such as the Encyclopedia of Religion; far too much experience, however, with Wikipedia.
  • little experience reading documented writing (and typically none in tracking down cited sources)
  • no familiarity with the Library of Congress shelving system used by most academic libraries. (For example, students often assume that, since there is no fiction section, we don't have any fiction.)
  • difficulty choosing and reformulating good search terms for topics that are unfamiliar.
  • difficulty selecting their best bets out results of a search.
  • difficulty skimming a source to decide if it will be useful or not (and a common misperception that using a book requires reading the whole thing).
  • lack of familiarity with things we assume are basic - that scholarly books have tables of contents and indexes that are clues to what's inside, that scholarly journal articles typically have an abstract, that articles appear in issues of magazines and journals in chronological order (since often they've only printed full-text articles from the computer).
  • unwillingness to invest time in learning a new approach to research when they're certain they'll find something on the Web.
  • no idea what kinds of questions they might ask at the reference desk.
  • little inclination to explore the physical library on their own.
  • that everyone else knows how it works - and admitting they don't is too embarrassing to contemplate.

Students tend to do the following things.

  • They often begin their research on Google. A major survey conducted in 2005 found only 2% of college students begin their research using resources on the college library's Website.
  • Within Google, they tend to look at the first results, rarely going beyond the first page.
  • They are likely to find a Wikipedia article among the first results; they often consider this an acceptable source to cite in their papers.
  • If they use a library database, they are most likely to use a general database containing both scholarly and popular articles in all disciplines, much of it in full text, rather than a subject-specific database.
  • They tend to return to whatever database worked before, whether or not it's appropriate.
  • They are reluctant to persevere if searches don't immediately yield "perfect" results - and are much more likely to change topics rather than change search strategies.
  • They have a great deal of difficulty locating books on the library shelves.
  • Many are nervous about approaching the reference desk and using interlibrary loan.
  • They are very confident about their ability to do research online.
  • Their professors are the most important source of advice about which sources to use. Other students are more likely to be viewed as valuable informants about sources than librarians are.

The library faculty can work with faculty in the discipline to overcome these obstacles.

Text based on "Seeing the Library from a Student Perspective" from Gustavaus College