March 20, 2018

Back to School: New Findings, Old News | Peer to Peer Review

When I took my current faculty position 25 years ago, I took advantage of faculty development opportunities on offer. One thing that surprised me about them was that a number of the most invested and thoughtful attendees were not new teachers but veterans, people who had taught for decades, but still wanted to improve their teaching. It wasn’t that their teaching was in need of improvement. Anyone involved in faculty development efforts knows there is an inverse correlation between poor teaching and attendance at teaching workshops. It was just that these seasoned professors were endlessly fascinated by the gaps in student understanding, and their curiosity about new ways to close those gaps was unquenchable.

It’s faculty development workshop season. Most institutions offer back-to-school specials on free workshops and retreats, taking advantage of the brief window of opportunity when faculty are fresh and their syllabi haven’t made it to the printer yet. There’s something about that promise of crisp weather and the cedar scent of freshly sharpened pencils that makes old faculty think “there’s got to be a better way to teach this.” No matter how much one can improve as a teacher, there’s always some better strategy out there.

What students don’t know, once more with feeling
I was reminded of this when reading the comments at an excellent news story at Inside Higher Ed on the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) study. I’ve been following this research on students at five institutions for some time. A team of researchers did a similar study in our library, so we paid close attention to ERIAL and the University of Rochester study [PDF]. Ethnographic methods offer ways of getting as close as possible to students’ lived experience, and the results of these studies are enlightening.

But, as comments in the conversation appended to the article point out, these studies, while fascinating, aren’t really telling us anything new, nor are they describing problems peculiar to the so-called digital natives growing up in an era that has been hard on school libraries. Previous studies have shown similar results-for decades. We should not be shocked that students find academic libraries daunting and confusing, that they won’t take the time to learn unfamiliar search tools and strategies unless they have to, that they will turn to tools they know and will stop when they’ve found enough sources to complete the assignment, even if better sources are available. And they have never known what librarians are for-or been inclined to ask for help. They’re in college! They’re grown-ups. Though styles change, showing ignorance has always been uncool. I was a nerdy student who spent hours in the library, but I never encountered the key index to the literature of my major field and I never asked library staff for help, except when a book was missing in the stacks. My first semester or two of library school was studded with mutterings of “Oh, wow! I could have used that!” and I suspect other librarians have had the same experience, even if they had something I never had—instruction from librarians connected to my coursework. (Yes, I am that old.)

There are two big questions that usually jostle for attention when reading findings like these. Why haven’t we figured out how to make information literacy a significant and meaningful part of the undergraduate curriculum? And why can’t we make our systems so easy to use that students don’t need so much assistance?

Unfinished business
Chill. It’s not entirely our fault. Research is complex by nature, and no matter how streamlined and convenient we make it, we can’t simplify learning how to construct meaningful questions and how to sort through unfamiliar and conflicting ideas, which actually contribute more to student difficulty than poorly-designed search systems. In 2009, Project Information Literacy found that understanding context was a huge challenge for students and developing a sense of context filled much of their research time. Carol Kulthau of Rutgers University reported the same thing in the 1980s, and I had similar findings in interviews that I conducted in 1990. It’s not for want of trying, nor is it thanks to degraded attention spans that students have difficulty.

Sure, we should do whatever we can to remove barriers to the information libraries provide and we should make the constellation of activities that make up this aptitude we call “information literacy” a more intentional part of a college education. Moreover, librarians are not the only ones involved in this effort. It’s encouraging to see that the dozens of comments made on the article about ERIAL’s findings come from course instructors as well as librarians, and both groups seem to feel it’s their job to make this work better. That’s good news.

But we may as well acknowledge that, whatever progress we make, the job will never be finished. We will never have our last back to school faculty development workshop, and we’ll never brush our hands off and sit back, knowing every student is finally a competent researcher. It’s not that we aren’t trying, or that our efforts are a waste of time. It’s that every year, a whole new group of students shows up, and we get to start all over again.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Mmm—just smell those freshly sharpened pencils!

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller