February 2008 Transcript: Alison J. Head

Joy: Welcome to First Monday Podcast I’m Joy Austria

AJ: And I’m AJ Hannah. How many often do you find yourself using an Internet search engine like Google or Yahoo Search in a single day? From simple searches about the weather, telephone numbers to more complex questions about any number of topics the Internet has become our reference source of choice. In fact, according to a 2005 Pew Internet & American Life memo, 60 million Americans use search engines on a typical day.

Joy: Our growing dependence on Internet search engines to satisfy all our information needs is a concern for educators and librarians, especially those on college campuses who struggle to get students to move beyond Google as their sole reference resource.

But an exploratory research study by Alison Head reveals students are not as dependent on Google as so many of us assume. According to Alison, Google isn’t the villain in this story and this issue has nothing to do with academic laziness. The fact is today’s college students simply lack fundamental research skills — the question is what needs to be done to ensure students possess critical thinking skills to not only get through the rigors of higher education but to survive in the professional world?

AJ: First Monday Podcast spoke with Alison to discuss her study, information literacy and practial solutions the academic community can make to help students.

AJ: Welcome to the podcast Alison. Why don’t you start out and tell us a little about yourself.

Alison: I’m a lecturer, professor at St. Mary’s College in California, which is a small Liberal Arts College in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I teach in the area of New Media Studies. My background training is I’m a usability expert; I’m interested in how people use the web, which brought me to conducting this study. And I also do usability consulting for clients.

Joy: Let’s talk about your article Beyond Google: How Do Students Conduct Academic Research. The popular notion in both the general public and academia is that students are hopelessly dependent on Google as their sole resource for conducting research — is that true?

Alison: Well there really are, I agree with what you’re saying, it’s confusing, there are two different groups of findings out there and one group of findings has suggested that students just go to Google and they’re a Google generation, they do a search and they look at usually the first page of results and go from there and that’s considered research for courses.

There of course is a different view, which our study supported, and more studies are coming out, in fact I’m looking at one right now from the UK [1] and reading through that, that came out last week, that suggests students’ research processes are a little more complex; they don’t just go to Google.(1) And that’s what our study, which was exploratory, found.

Joy: For people that haven’t read the article can you briefly describe the study’s methodology?

Alison: Okay, in a nutshell, what we did was, and again, it was a pilot, it was exploratory, we really used our campus as a lab, I realize it’s not generalizable perhaps to all institutions and campuses.

What we used was we started with focus groups and we sat down with two different focus groups with humanities and social science majors. And we asked them in very simple terms, what happens what goes through your head when a professor says you’ve got a research assignment due, you need to do research to come up with a paper.

The other method that we used was content analysis of professors’ handouts. When a professor stands up there and says, “Gee you’ve got a research paper due,” what kind of handout do they distribute in class that guides students, that helps them with the research process. And that’s what we were interested in, do professors direct students to different resources, perhaps libraries, perhaps Google, is there any sort of rubric or criteria?

So those were the two main methods: the focus groups followed by a larger student sample to see if the trends we found in the focus group were true with a larger group of people and a larger group of diverse students, and then also the content analysis of professors’ handouts so we had the rest of the equation.

How do students define information needs, how do they begin to assess what their needs are and what steps do they take to fill those needs and evaluate the sources.

Joy: What did the data reveal about student research habits?

Alison: What happened was they really had trouble as far as information–seeking skills in the area of narrowing down topics, putting them into some sort of context or scoping an issue. They can come up with great ideas, they just didn’t know how to operationalize how to do research for those great ideas.

The web, on the other hand, made things more difficult in the sense that it added to information overload, it created more and more choices and coupled with that the content analysis showed that professors really didn’t give a lot of guidance about how to evaluate web resources or where to even go to begin the research process.

So the interesting finding in the sense that we know professors think of research differently than students do, a lot of times professors rely on a network or an invisible college that they’ve learned through the doctoral or graduate school process, maybe at the masters level. But they know the literature. Students don’t, so in a lot of ways students were kind of thrown into this never never land and what did they do? What most students do – they procrastinated. And they weren’t sure what to do.

But if you look at the sample, which was students with about a B average, we found that actually they’d had some success. They were making it; they were getting grades they were getting through. They must have learned some sort of strategy for a process of research, which they described as “barely tolerable and coping.” And what we found that strategy entailed was in a very interesting way kind of second–guessing what scholarly research resources were.

I was surprised by the finding that students had a very clever work around of first turning when they had a research assignment to the course text book, and then secondly to the library resources, maybe through PsychInfo or LinkPlus, sites they both mentioned in focus groups and also in the online survey of liking to use and assuming that if the library bought it and if the professor recommended a course reader for class they must be scholarly.

And that was really a fascinating finding and so we began putting this puzzle together in the larger context of understanding information literacy — how do students define information needs, how do they begin to assess what their needs are and what steps do they take to fill those needs and evaluate the sources as they go on. You’re probably aware this is a huge initiative on most campuses in the country.

Joy: But how is the process of not teaching students information literacy skills different from pre–digital scholarship? I barely remember lessons on the differences between scholarly and popular articles, but I acquired research skills and made it through graduate school. Why can’t today’s students do the same thing?

Alison: Well let me ask you this — I’m going to ask you a question actually. I get to turn the tables here. [Laughter] Think about this, do you consider yourself self–taught in research?

Joy: Yes, I would honestly have to say yes.

Alison: Okay, I can tell you’re smiling, you’re not alone because a recent survey within the last week from the University of Michigan’s library they did this last fall [2] they had an online survey and my favorite question they asked was, “How do you know how to do research, with the web or with anything?”. Research in the broad broad area doing any sort of research and I think something like ninety percent of their sample, a huge majority, sample of 330 students responding to an online survey say, “I was self–taught,” and that’s interesting. Right there we’re looking at a gap of we say look it I learned how to do research and what I’m providing through my research is one snapshot of how students have become self–taught.

So they’re not actually learning the process of doing research, which if you talk to a librarian this is of huge concern.

One of my favorite quotes one of the students said in the focus group was, “I wish there was a stamp of approval on the web for different sites so that I knew it was scholarly and then I knew it was legitimate.” So for a lot of students the web is really it’s a frontier.

What makes a site credible? And of course these questions have been asked certainly by Stanford and the credibility research that’s done there so these questions have been dealt with but still students really don’t have the intuitive skills for assessing the credibility of the web and this makes it difficult and if you think about it they’re building on skills that sometimes are very weak and understanding the differences for instance between a primary and a secondary source.

So those are skills you could learn 10 years ago, 15 years ago when you were in college. What’s being argued now is students don’t have that first round of skills and it’s been difficult to build on the second round of skills and apply it to a web environment. So in a lot of ways, Joy, it’s like taking French 5 when you haven’t had French 1,2,3,4; it’s like being thrown into the middle of a process and that’s what I would say the web does.

[Students] must have learned some sort of strategy for a process of research, which they described as “barely tolerable and coping.”

AJ: So, it’s very obvious that information literacy is something that need to be taught but a lot of students are testing out of English 101 — which is the logical class to teach this kind of material. What practical applications can people get from your research to actually make a difference in fostering information literacy in research techniques?

Alison: It’s a great question and information literacy is the elephant in the living room. Nobody says, that I know of on any campus, “Let’s not do information literacy, let’s not teach students how to critically think.”

I think the issue with information literacy is two things: I think on one hand the whole quest for information literacy has moved beyond being a library–centric issue into being a campus–centric issue. That students really do need to learn these skills and it’s important and I think librarians are beginning to move beyond looking just at whether students measure up to standards and measures that they’ve come up with for quantifying whether students are information literate.

And so I think that information literacy in that sense has become a more central discussion and I also think that it has to be a primary goal in light of the impact of the web and what are professors going to do in classrooms, what are librarians, how will administrators support this goal.

AJ: And what specific measures can professors, librarians and campus administrators take to promote information literacy?

Alison: Okay, I think there are different things that can be done in each different faction on a campus. For instance, I think librarians right now are very actively beginning to examine bibliographic instruction, what they do with those library talks.

What we found worked particularly well for faculty was allowing students to go through drafts of the research papers and meeting with professors and going through that coaching process. In other words, information literacy isn’t dependent on online resources entirely, there has to be some offline coaching that can come from librarians, it can come from faculty.

AJ: You recognize that personal coaching is probably an answer to or a possibility to creating greater information literacy and guiding students in their projects but such a concept is completely unthinkable at a larger university because the professors won’t do it, the TAs are’t going to do it. What’s your opinion of instituting information literacy as a requirement for incoming freshmen?

Alison: I agree with you totally, how do you in these mega–classes? I went to Berkeley as an undergrad, it’s a huge school, I understand exactly what you’re saying. I look at a place like Stanford that is also a huge place certainly not as big as Berkeley or Ohio State, but they’ve got an interesting program with redoing the reading and writing comp requirement that all students have to take coming in to Stanford and they have a program called the Program on Writing and Rhetoric and through that particular program they teach rhetorical writing, critical thinking, as well as research, as well as expressing using different mediums and different voices. So it’s your idea of is it an information literacy requirement.

The one–on–one coaching, you know where would that occur? I’m not sure. You talk to other people, you know would that occur on the librarian end, would that be some sort of special session? Librarians are looking as I mentioned before very critically at bibliographic instruction. A lot of them don’t think it’s working, they want to redo it. Is there an answer there?

And then on the faculty end, some sort of, this came up from a librarian at CSU system out here, the Cal State system, they’re very interested in developing a rubric for what good research entails, almost like grading rubrics; if you want to get an A you do this. But if you could see an information literacy rubric being something along the lines of you know if you want to do good research this is how you do it.

So those are three different methods to deal with the constraints that most institutions have. They never have enough money and they’re always concerned about the ratio of professors to students and resources and your claims are very valid but I think it’s going to have to be an integrated approach.

Joy: Alison, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. We really appreciate it.

AJ: Be sure to check out the Extra Features section on our website to learn more about the second phase of Alison’s study — Project Information Literacy. You can hear Alison talk about the study and then visit her website to find out how YOUR college can get involved in this exciting project.

Joy: We’d love to hear what you think about this month’s episode. Email us at comments@firstmondaypodcast.org — Or join our Facebook page. You can let us know you’re thoughts as well as receive updates on upcoming podcast episodes.

I’m Joy Austria

AJ: And I’m AJ Hannah. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next month. End of article


(1) In an February 15, 2008 email message to the Editors, Alison wanted to emphasize not only is the student research process more complex than simply going on Google, but students are not naturals at the Internet. The study she’s referring to, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, was conducted and published by the Center for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER), an independent publishing and new media think tank based in the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies (SLAIS) at University College London. For more information about this study see a January 16, 2008 British Library press release.


[1] Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future at http://www.bl.uk/news/pdf/googlegen.pdf, accessed 15 February 2008.

[2] S. Chapman, K. Varnum and M. Creech, "Main Library Gateway: Library web survey," at http://www.lib.umich.edu/usability/projects/ProjectReports/WebSurvey_Fall2007_Formal.pdf, accessed 15 February 2008.