Millennials' Research Skills Lacking

After reading a very depressing article in the latest issue of the Law Library Journal about the demise of law libraries, this article gives me hope that people will continue to see the value of a librarian.

Time recently reported on a study that exposes the myth of the digital native conducted at Illinois Wesleyan, DePaul University, and Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Illinois’s Chicago and Springfield campuses in 2011. InsideHigherEd discussed the study in detail.

The most alarming finding in the ERIAL studies was perhaps the most predictable: when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy. Only seven out of 30 students whom anthropologists observed at Illinois Wesleyan conducted what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search.

Throughout the interviews, students mentioned Google 115 times -- more than twice as many times as any other database. The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)

Even when students turned to more scholarly resources, that did not necessarily solve the problem. Many seemed confused about where in the constellation of library databases they should turn to locate sources for their particular research topic: Half wound up using databases a librarian “would most likely never recommend for their topic.” For example, “Students regularly used JSTOR to try to find current research on a topic, not realizing that JSTOR does not provide access to the most recently published articles,” Duke and Asher wrote in their paper, noting that “articles typically appear in JSTOR after 3-5 years, depending on their publisher.” (JSTOR was the second-most frequently alluded-to database in student interviews, with 55 mentions.)

Regardless of the advanced-search capabilities of the database they were querying, “Students generally treated all search boxes as the equivalent of a Google search box, and searched ‘Google-style,’ using the ‘any word anywhere’ keyword as a default,” they wrote. Out of the 30 students Duke and Asher observed doing research, 27 failed to narrow their search criteria at all when doing so would have turned up more helpful returns. Unsurprisingly, students using this method got either too many search results or too few. Frequently, students would be so discouraged they would change their research topic to something more amenable to a simple search.

All of these findings suggest a huge need for librarians and really go to the evolving role of the librarian - in part, offering instruction on how to navigate and contextualize information. The main problem is that even though Millennials lack these skills, they do not seek the help of librarians. According to the study, most of them view us as "glorified ushers" pointing in this direction or that. And they often overestimate their research skills.

There may be something to the "shock and awe approach" of helping students understand their deficiencies so that they can really learn to research.


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