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Anecdotes from Experience: College Students Conducting Research

A couple weeks ago I co-hosted a professional development webinar with the team at OCLC on how students in higher education approach research (you can view an archived recording here). It was one of the highest-attended webinars we’ve had lately, and there was ample participation.

DSC_0155While the positive feedback from the content of the presentation was great, it was more far more intriguing to see what other librarians had to say about their day-to-day experiences working with college students. Relaying statistics, studies and scholarly reports is great and all, but it speaks volumes when reinforced by real-world experiences.

Unsurprisingly, most of the responses related to students’ understanding (or lack thereof) of conducting research. During the webinar, Denise Marshall, a librarian from Fairleigh Dickinson University, said that “students don’t even know what peer-reviewed or even scholarly articles [are].” Another librarian said she had a capstone student who was trying to write her entire reference list from journal article abstracts (!). The librarian had to acquire the articles via inter-library loan so the student could actually read them.

DSC_0155Beyond understanding how to use specific resources, there were a handful of stories in the chat room about how students view the entire research process. Craig Beard from the University of Alabama at Birmingham said, “I wonder how many students understand paper writing as part of a learning experience? Perhaps they see the paper as merely ‘a project.’” From my past experience working in academia and current position at a public library, I have to agree. Research assignments are often seen as stepping stone to the finish line, another item to check off the course syllabus “to-do” list. Another librarian mentioned Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process, where the first stage of research is confusion (seems about right, no?).

This discussion was impossibly timely, as I had a strikingly similar experience just a few days later when I was behind the reference desk. A young woman, maybe 20 years old and rather meek, tip-toed over to the desk. She asked if I could help her with a research paper. I was pumped—I help high school students with their research papers frequently, but it had been a while since I worked with a college student. Highly complex research topics and having access to ample scholarly databases is a rarity at our small library.

It was a quiet day, so I was able to work with her for the better part of an hour without many interruptions. Her first question was how she can access an American Psychological Association article for free because she didn’t have the money to pay for it. What I learned over the next 60 minutes was that she did not know:

  • What a peer-reviewed article was
  • That she could access databases from her library’s website
  • How to get to her library’s website
  • How to log in to the databases
  • That she could download some articles as a PDF


We eventually figured all of these things out together, even if it involved my showing her quickly and then writing down steps for future reference. Little to my surprise, she had never visited her academic library or talked with a librarian at her university. She was heading back to college after Easter and said she would finish her research paper with the help of an academic librarian then (let’s hope she did!). Regardless, it seems fitting to contribute this small story to a growing discussion of just how unprepared many college students are for scholarly research.

Have you had similar experiences working with college students? Tell us in the comments!

Emily Gover is the in-house librarian for EasyBib and ResearchReady. She enjoys a good karaoke session as long as ’80s tunes are involved. You can find her on Twitter, @Emily_EasyBib, or posting news you can use at the EasyBib Librarians Facebook page.