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Teaching Research to First-Year Students: Student Perspective

How First Year Students See the Library & Academic Research

Here are some of the common knowledge gaps we see in first-year students. This is by no means a criticism of incoming students - this list simply indicates the work that we all need to undertake to help students do research well.

1. Students have little previous exposure to scholarly writing, so they often lack familiarity with processes and conventions that we assume are basic. In general, they... 

  • are unfamiliar with the formats (journal articles, edited volumes, scholarly books, etc.) that  scholars commonly use to communicate ideas.

  • struggle to discern differences between sources written for a general audience & sources written for scholars.

  • don't intuitively grasp that citations reflect a broader scholarly conversation - and they typically have little experience tracking down cited sources - other than in Wikipedia articles.

  • lack familiarity with navigating scholarly sources, including using tables of contents, indexes, and abstracts.

2. Students generally have little exposure to academic libraries and specialized research tools. They... 

  • have little previous exposure to reference books, including how they are useful in developing topics and search terms.

  • lack familiarity with the Library of Congress shelving system used by most academic libraries, meaning they can struggle to find materials in our building.

  • are hesitant to ask for help from reference librarians, either in person or via email.

  • tend to start and end searches via Google or Google Scholar, bypassing library databases altogether and missing large portions of relevant academic literature.

  • are confused about how interlibrary loan works (and that it doesn't cost them anything to use it).

Common Student Research Behavior

Students need help and guidance as with many key aspects of research. They tend to have...

  • difficulty choosing and reformulating good search terms for topics that are unfamiliar.

  • difficulty selecting better sources from a list of search results. 

  • unfamiliarity with the concept of skimming a source to decide if it will be useful or not.

  • an unwillingness to invest time in learning a new approach to research when they're certain they'll find something online.

  • a conviction that everyone else knows how it works - and admitting they don't is embarrassing.

They also tend to...

  • use the same database they've used in the past, even if it is not the best database for the subject.

  • often do not do the work to track down hard copies of material, whether books on the shelf or hard copies of articles they find electronically through our databases or Google Scholar.

  • get caught up in finding a certain stated number of sources rather than finding the best sources that help them understand their topics

  • frequently choose sources that "prove" their hypothesis, rather than listening to what sources are saying about a topic and drawing conclusions from the wider conversation.

  • choose the first few sources that show up in the search results, no matter what

If we help students start this work in the first year, it will give them an excellent foundation for doing more sophisticated research throughout their college careers and beyond.

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