Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Students' use of research content in Teaching and Learning

When I saw in the executive summary of this JISC report from University of Central Lancashire (made from surveys and focus groups at 4 institutions Jan-April 2009 -UCL plus one Russell group, one large post-92 metropolitan and one small former university-college)I had to post about it.

Below is the exec. summary (the italics are mine)

Identifying Research
• Students are aware of the qualitative distinction between published research and general internet sites (I was quite surpised by this)
• Students are not generally sophisticated in their understanding of things like peer-review or currency, there is a common view that if something is published it must be reliable (what a shock)
• There is a growing diversity in the kinds of content identified as research but journal articles and books still dominate students’ perceptions of what research is
• Students are very reliant on library catalogues, databases and staff advice
• Research content is seen primarily as a source for assignments and students’ perception of research is very much led by the context of their assignments (suggests that the assignment is all important and where our IL interventions should be)
• Students are reluctant to approach their tutor directly in the first instance for advice on what research content to access
Very few students identify undergraduate or postgraduate dissertations as research content
(very much what this report wanted to know about)

Accessing Research
• The vast majority of students use either a home computer or a university computer to access research
Most students will go to their library catalogue first, then Google (amazing...)
Although Google, Google Books and Google Scholar are heavily used, the library catalogue is still the preferred first choice for most students (still amazing)
• A lot of students use Google but are bewildered by the amount of responses and will rarely look beyond the first couple of pages of search terms (backed up by previous research)
An increasing number of students are using the limited preview facility in Google Books to either read books not in their library or to save themselves the trouble of actually going to the library (Interesting)
• Although the trend is towards electronic access for students of all age groups, there is still a significant proportion of students who will use library visits in conjunction with or instead of the internet (so we still have place...)
• The internet is used but also distrusted, many students are aware that sites such as Wikipedia are not respected by their tutors (the debate is still on about Wikipedia?)
• Some students will use a discipline-specific database to access research. These students have had a better experience of accessing research and some use these databases almost exclusively. However, this means they are dependent on the holdings of the database
Students at all universities expressed dissatisfaction with their library holdings and level of service (this would be confirmed by LibQual findings - no group is satisfied with the library however big the holdings because their expectations alter acc. the library)
There is limited evidence of students using social networking and other Web 2.0 technologies to identify and access research (this is important, but not too surprising as these tools have likely not been promoted or accepted yet as information sources)

Using Research
• Most students use research to support their assignments, so use of research is primarily ‘assessment led’
• Some students demonstrate a sophisticated engagement with research which they use to develop arguments rather than simply support a point
• A significant and encouraging minority also use research to gain a wider knowledge of their field
• Students tend to be very selective, using research content which is immediately relevant to their needs. For example, they are happy to use the limited preview pages in Google Books without seeing the wider context of the material in the rest of their books (Interesting)
• Many quote or paraphrase research content in their assignments
• Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) identify themselves with academics rather than students and demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the research environment

This was a report I had to read, and amazingly they had also cited my first article from 2006 on Web 2.0 and IL. That was before anyone was making the connection and Web 2.0 wasnt mainstream and I suppose I was "an early enthusiast for the potential of social networking"!!

There is a useful literature review chapter which draws together trends like the way that students research is largely shapped by conventions within the discipline, and the importance of their being able to understand the framework of their discipline first. The importance of being able to access at home because many are "homebirds" (a new label I've not seen before). I liked
"According to the research that we’ve surveyed, students tend to encounter research content in a much more fragmentary way than in the past, developing chains of meaning from a variety of sources rather than investigating one source in-depth." There was concern about varying abilities among academics with new technologies (Web 2.0)
"This does not mean that students are necessarily more information literate or better able to use ICT, but it does mean that more and more students are bypassing traditional university systems when searching for and accessing research content".

Perhaps the most important point, which I would echo, is that " students’ critical thinking skills are not being adequately supported and that the ‘fast surfing, broad scanning and deep
diving’ habits of internet users, young and old, is detrimental to their critical use of research."

There are some interesting case studies of individual students in chapter 4.
In the section on social networking
"Our survey found very little evidence of students actually using social networking.
Moreover, the survey found no evidence of a trend amongst younger students. On the contrary, the few students who do use social networking to find research content tend to be 22-50 years old. Typical means of social networking include Facebook (which is dominant), discussion boards, wikis and Twitter. We did not speak to any students who used Second Life or podcasts, and in the survey no student mentioned Second Life and less than2% used podcasts. This is a revealing absence given the amount of research, investment and discussion that there has been in HEIs over the last two years in these products. "
In the focus groups they found "Left to their own devices, students are very wary of using social networking and wikis because they think that their tutors will disapprove."
There is other evidence that their lack of use of Web 2.0 is connected to academic lack of engagement or disapproval.
However I regret that in their conclusion the authors cite this lack of use as a reason for JISC to review any planned investments in this area and re-evaluate the risk and likely benefit. Rather we should all be working toward making our education more social and partipatory, fit for the 21st century.

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