By Nate Anderson | Published: August 24, 2007 – 01:32AM CT
The study appears in the current issue of First Monday, a peer-reviewed online-only journal dealing with digital culture. Researchers at St. Mary’s, a small liberal arts college in California, took a look at what students did when confronted with a new research assignment from a professor. The findings aren’t especially surprising: the first thing students did was to get confused and procrastinate. Once they finally settled down to work, though, the surprises began.
Some professors have lamented the fact that too many students dive right into Wikipedia or fire up general search engines when searching for scholarly information. The St. Mary’s study found, though, that 40 percent of students surveyed first went to their course materials for background information and citations.
Next up was the library web site, where 23 percent of students went first. Search engines were the first destination for 13 percent of students, and 12 percent went to the professor. Only 3 percent tried Wikipedia. Students were also (thankfully) aware that blogs weren’t scholarly sources, and all of them noted that they would not include blog data in a research paper.
Those findings would be more heartening if they were representative of all college students; sadly, that’s not the case. The study included only upper-division students, which excludes half of the US collegiate population. It took place at a small liberal arts school with an annual tuition of $30,000 a year (not including room and board). And it relied on the survey data of 178 students (survey data can lend itself to the underreporting of “undesirable” behaviors) rather than on observation. As such, we wonder how the data would look were the scope considerably expanded.
Perhaps the survey wasn’t representative of all students, but it was interesting in that it covered a fairly privileged subset of students—and even these students admitted to being routinely confused about doing research, procrastinating until the last possible moment, and finding the research process “barely a tolerable task.” The study found that even these upper-level students were “confused by what college-level research entails.”
Concerns about students running to the web to take shortcuts on their research may be overblown, but it is clear that students need better instruction and tools to guide their research. In light of this, it’s surprising how many students aren’t turning to online resources, even if these resources may be flawed.