College Readiness and Library Research Skills: Observations from Oregon

Photo of student frustration
Source from Catholic Online; click image to view source

A recent article in Library Journal, “First Year College Readiness,” highlights some of research skills academic librarians have observed first year students struggling with when they reach college. Over-reliance on Google, superficial knowledge of plagiarism, and lack of experience with researching and writing analytical papers were just a few of the themes touched on in the article. It got me wondering if Oregon academic librarians had similar observations, given the decrease in licensed school librarians in the state.

In a very informal survey, I asked ACRL-OR members and other academic librarians involved in library instruction to relay their thoughts about first year college students’ skills. Below are highlights from the responses I received. Based on this small sample, it seems that Oregon students struggle with similar issues outlined in the article. I was encouraged by optimism and strategies for addressing those issues also expressed in some of the responses.

“Far too many of them think that the first 20 returns on a Google search are sufficient ‘research.’”

“My experience is pretty consistent with the Library Journal article, but maybe a bit more extreme. There are no credentialed school librarians in this part of the state, and over time we have seen a decrease in skills by the time students get to college. They come from rural areas with very small schools, where they don’t receive IL instruction, and where, in some cases, they don’t even have access to computers. This is one reason we have IL credit courses at EOU, and students do learn how to do all of these things. We just wish there was more of a foundation that we could build on at the college level rather than starting from scratch. 

  • Students often think they understand plagiarism, but we find they don’t know how to cite correctly, and they don’t know that they need to cite when they paraphrase. They only know that you need to cite a quote.
  • Students don’t know what databases are, or even what journals are. I have had students write in an assignment, “books won’t have the information I need,” because they think all books are fiction. This is rare (happened twice).
  • They don’t understand the vocabulary of information. Not jargon, but even basic things like the difference between print and digital, subscription, periodical, credentials. These are all words students have asked me to define.
  • They don’t understand the way search engines and the Internet work, and how that has an impact on their searching.
  • They want to find information quickly, and are hesitant to use print materials or to wait for interlibrary loan. 
  • They don’t know how to synthesize information from multiple sources, and they seek that one perfect source that will exactly answer their research question.
  • They don’t know what makes an appropriate research question for college-level research.
  • They do know they should not use Wikipedia as a source, but they don’t always know why.”

“I always stress how important it is to have passion for the topic they are researching. Often the students are not fully prepared with their topics and so much of the process is making sure they have a topic that they can work with and have formulated a relevant question. Students are quick to walk away from a topic when they can’t find anything. Often, a library instruction session is more about selling myself as a mentor than anything else.”

“I think ‘kids today’ actually know a lot more than we give them credit for. They’ve learned to search google by typing in phrases. You’d be surprised how often just typing your thesis statement into EBSCO or Gale (without quotes) is an excellent search strategy!”

“I talk to freshman about how using library resources online is their invitation into a part of the invisible web that they now have access to for the first time. … this is their chance to learn more and go to the next level as researchers, which intrigues them, especially when I emphasize that they have paid-for access to these resources with their tuition and fees.” [and research is a job skill valued by potential employers!]

It is clear that librarians are key in helping students learn the research skills they need for college. When that is not an option, at least Oregon does have a tool to help. If you haven’t done so, make sure to check out the great research process guidance offered by the Oregon School Library Information System (OSLIS).

OSLIS logo

Thanks to Steve Silver, Sarah Ralston, Dotty Ormes, Michael Grutchfield, and Kimberly Willson-St Clair for their responses to my questions.

Thanks also to Robert Schroeder for pointing me to the survey he conducted with Oregon librarians in 2007:

Schroeder, R. (2009). Both sides now: Librarians looking at information literacy from high school and college. Tips. Educators’ Spotlight Digest, 4(1).

Arlene Weible
ACRL-OR Board, State Library Representative
Oregon State Library

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