Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Guest Post: Taking a Step Back: When Instruction Basics Need to be Revisited in a New Environment

iLOVE welcomes a guest post from Holly Schettler, Reference & Instruction Librarian at Morningside College in Sioux City, IA.


Humans in general are always looking forward. Time pushes us onward even when we wish to reminisce or scrutinize the past. It only makes sense, then, that we do the same in our careers. Librarians focus on building the literacy skills of our students, creating a scaffolding that will (hopefully) carry them through their future research; but what happens when that scaffolding fails? Without a strong enough foundation, that is exactly what we face--students that fall short of their research goals.

Academic research is often associated with peer-reviewed academic journals or other resources deemed to be purely scholarly, yet such a narrow viewpoint has its downfalls. More and more freshmen are entering college with a limited knowledge of library databases and keyword searching; these “digital natives” are immediately drawn to Google to find resources for academic research. Often their default search-engine-instinct results in research based upon unreliable sources. I listen to faculty lament their students’ failed attempts at quality research, despite the abundance of subscription resources supplied by the library.

So what is a librarian to do in this situation? I suggest we look to a new environment to build these research skills--Google. Yes, students are already using Google to do their research. Yes, they are not finding great resources by doing so. But if we can teach students to use Google (and other search engines) effectively and truly evaluate online resources before using them (instead of as a mindless default), then those skills can carry them forward into unknown territory--that of library databases.

Thankfully many of our first year course instructors have embraced online research due to the nature of their topics or themes. Some common themes we see include: popular culture, environmental awareness, science and technology, current issues facing the world, etc. These themes lend themselves to utilizing both resources we find in our databases as well as resources that can be found freely available online.  In these cases, we can start where the students are familiar (Google) and build up to using more advanced platforms (library databases). We can evaluate resources on the web, and then transfer those skills to different types of resources provided by the library. Instead of saying “NO! Don’t use Google!” and causing students to lose confidence in the way they have been researching, we can say “Google is an appropriate starting place for your research in these types of cases...”

The concept extends beyond first year courses as well. Consider the business department--a number of sources utilized by business students can be found free (or at least partially free) online: Forbes, Business Insider, Advertising Age, and Bloomberg Business, just to name a few. When doing company research, where should students start? The company website, of course! But often, without teaching students how to find, use, and evaluate websites, they land on the company’s consumer website, not the site that will give them the information they need for their research. Surprisingly, most students I have worked with do not even know how to locate the “About” page on a website in order to evaluate the source! If the information is not in plain sight, most students will give up or use the resource without evaluating it. Thus, we need to invest time into training students the proper way to “Google,” particularly for first year students and those in specific departments like business.

Once students have mastered their skills in Google, the next logical step would be a discovery service, where students can search in a manner similar to Google but locate resources provided by their library. Again, we are building skills and scaffolding information literacy, but simply starting the process in a new environment--one that most students believe they are familiar with already. Essentially, this allows students to build confidence in their research skills without having to get over the initial shock of being told they can’t or shouldn’t use Google for their research. It is a tale some of them have heard before in high school--a knee-jerk reaction to the overconfidence of digital natives--but one that should not be continued in college.

It should be noted that some students will have received more preparation for scholarly research in high school than others, meaning some students may be more comfortable jumping into library database research immediately. I am not proposing a complete abandonment of library resource training in the first year courses. At Morningside, we also cover basic database usage in our first year classes, including research within Academic Search Premier and Opposing Viewpoints in Context. But even for students who are somewhat familiar with certain library databases, effective Google searching is important. Many digital natives do not realize how poor their search skills are and can become increasingly frustrated by not being able to locate that for which they are searching.

Of course, this discussion of beginning research skills in Google lends to a discussion of information literacy skills being taught in high schools, which unfortunately are lacking due to the inadequate number of librarians employed in those institutions. A revisiting of the topic may be warranted upon a change in the landscape, but currently most college librarians are left starting from scratch when it comes to educating students on information literacy. So what can we do in the current landscape? Build a foundation of skills that is strong, and that will carry the students forward, even if that foundation is in Google.

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