November 21, 2017

The First Year | College Readiness

Four students sitting on a couch in a library

Photo credit: Purestock/Thinkstock

Heather Moorefield-Lang has witnessed the face of freshman terror when the first-year students walk into the college library at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, are confronted by two million books, and don’t know where to start. As an assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Sciences, she knows that relieving that angst is her job.

“We find students search on Google, decide the first hit is the right one, and then go on with their day,” says Moorefield-Lang. “We also have students who come in and believe if something is on the Internet it must be true. We would like them to know the difference between information that’s research-based [or not] and [between] a scholarly and popular resource.”

Preparing students for college is the endeavor of most high school educators. Librarians, in particular, understand the research and critical thinking abilities a college education requires. But often many find themselves hamstrung. If the school has a librarian at all, their scarce resources of time, money, and space may be taken up with test prep requirements at the expense of things such as subscriptions to databases, which nearly every college student will need to know how to navigate. Public libraries, of course, must juggle supporting students with the rest of their constituents—and can only reach those who choose to ask for research help.

College librarians, and others who work closely with college freshmen, understand that their high school colleagues are already pressed to do much with little. Yet that doesn’t mean they don’t have a wish list of what first-year students should come armed with in terms of scholarly skills.

Pulling the plug on Google

As the director of undergraduate programs at Yale University, New Haven, CT, Emily Horning says many incoming students are familiar with databases, but Google dependency is still fairly ­common. So Horning and her colleagues often work with students to refine keyword searches and locate details they need. Her goal is to help them find source materials they wouldn’t discover with a search engine—and have them understand that they’re expected to do this kind of in-depth work at this point in their education.

“They realize that the kind of sources their professors will want to see are things they can find in the library,” she says. “Not necessarily poking around on Google.”

Nonetheless, students sometimes push back at instruction on how to use databases, or how to work around a gap in the scholarly record. Eliot ­Finkelstein of the College Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) says students will say they’re switching topics because they can’t find any information on their initial idea.

Finkelstein, public services librarian and instruction coordinator for the university’s undergraduate library, knows this attitude reflects today’s culture, in which Google results come up in a nanosecond. But, he says, that’s the antithesis of what college, or scholarly, work is about. Instead, he wants students to understand they’re contributing to a conversation—and are expected to put forward a new, original thought. To do that? Students must invest their time and ideally their excitement.

“Research is messy,” says Finkelstein. “If there’s nothing on your topic, or you’re not finding anything, maybe that’s a good thing. Then you can add a point of view that hasn’t been explored and find other sources that can help you bring that out. It’s a discovery process.”

Plagiarism school

Working with students who don’t know how to quote or cite other people’s materials properly is another hurdle college librarians face. Yale’s Horning sends students to reference books or online sites such as Zotero and EndNote, which can help them format their materials quickly and accurately.

Still, there are students who just don’t understand that they must credit others and that failing to do so is plagiarism and not allowed in college.

Kent State University, OH, actually runs a so-called plagiarism school, managed by librarians for students who have been caught plagiarizing. The librarians walk the offenders through their papers, explaining the proper method of attribution. If the students get help with the citations, they can sometimes still get a grade for that work, albeit lower than what they would have gotten had they cited appropriately in the first place.

“We also have sessions to explain what plagiarism is,” says Jasmine Jefferson, a first-year experience librarian at Kent State. “But students can only come to plagiarism school once.”

Freshman wish list

Even as college librarians understand, and voice their recognition, that high school librarians are working with limitations, they still wish freshmen had, at least, some familiarity with writing a research paper.

“Something beyond a report,” says Sherri Saines, a reference librarian at Ohio University’s Vernon Alden Library in Athens. “A writing exercise in which the student gathers information, digests it, learns something from it, and then writes about it. Our students come without that experience, which is surprising. I have talked with high school librarians, and they say, ‘I lost all that time because of testing.’ It makes me want to scream.”

Allison Mackley gets that concern. That’s why the teacher-librarian and library department chair at Hershey High School, PA, runs a semesterlong class called “Ethical Research from Passion to Purpose,” with the end result an original research paper.

“The class is becoming more popular because kids realize they need these skills when they start college,” she says. “One student also got an internship in Washington, DC, based on her project, the use of social media in political campaigns.”

Cathy Jo Nelson wants to help her 2,400 students at Paul M. Dorman High School in Roebuck, SC, so she invests heavily in databases so the high schoolers are familiar with these online resources before they start college. Nelson estimates the school has about 30 databases available, some paid for by the state and about seven paid for by the school.

“Every year the purchase order crosses [the principal’s] desk and he asks if these are necessary,” she says. “We have to justify it every year. But we have a heavy emphasis on making our students college career ready. And one way we do that is by beefing up on subscription databases to make sure [our students are] exposed to what their college environment will be as well.”

IdaMae Craddock starts even younger. As the librarian at Burley Middle School (BMS) in Charlottesville, VA, Craddock gets her sixth to eighth graders started by building annotated bibliographies. The middle schoolers learn how to use citations and are taught to recognize a reliable source—and what is not.

Craddock knows how important research skills are during the college years. Before working at BMS, she spent three years as the school librarian at Monticello High School, also in Charlottesville, working with AP English students on their research projects, helping them to locate and spot reliable and primary sources.

“That’s especially important now at the middle school as we have a Maker Lab in the library,” says Craddock. “So whatever the students want to make, the instructions need to be from a reliable source.”

Building partnerships

When she was at the high school, Craddock says she partnered with a librarian at the University of Virginia who would come to the school to talk with students about college-level research. She also arranged a field trip so students could find primary sources on their own. Other colleges, among them Kent State and UW-M, say they support that back-and-forth with the high schools in their area.

Yet whenever the students show up—as high schoolers or college freshmen—librarians want that first experience of exploring a college library to remain fun. If students feel criticized for not knowing how to research a paper, properly source material, or locate information they need for a project, they’re not only less likely to do well—they’re less likely to ask for help again. Getting hung up on where they are and putting added stress on their experience will only alienate students further. And that doesn’t help them—nor the college hoping to provide their education.

“We take them where they are,” says Virginia Tech instruction librarian Carolyn Meier. “We move them forward and show them all the cool stuff we have and what we can do to help them. The more positive you are, the more excited you are, the happier they will be. If you approach them with, ‘This is how you can do this, and it’s easy’ rather than, ‘Why didn’t you learn this in high school?’ it [opens] a better frame of mind for them and a better frame of mind for us.”

This article was published in Library Journal's May 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Share