April 24, 2018

College Graduates, Critical Thinking, and Information Strategies | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaRecently I was so fortunate as to attend a presentation by Alison Head, founder and director of Project Information Literacy, at the Monroe C. Gutman Library over at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. There I heard some pretty exciting preliminary results from two Project Information Literacy (PIL) Lifelong Learning Studies: “Phase One: Interviews with Recent Graduates Research Brief” and “Phase Two: Trends from the Online Survey.” All of the following information comes from the two PIL reports referenced. Do know that this is a long post, but this research is so significant I want to bring as much attention to it as possible.

Phase 1

The Phase 1 research was conducted in spring 2014, in which PIL interviewed 63 recent college graduates from ten U.S. colleges and universities for 35 minutes each over the telephone. The trends PIL observed during the qualitative interviews then informed the quantitative online survey the group administered in Phase 2 of the research, during fall 2014, to 75,000 recent graduates from the ten schools in their institutional sample:  Belmont University (Nashville); Ohio State University (Columbus); Phoenix College; Trinity University (San Antonio); University of Central Florida (Orlando); University of Nevada, Las Vegas; University of North Carolina, Charlotte; University of Redlands (CA); University of Texas, Austin; and University of Washington (Seattle).

For the purposes of its study, PIL defined lifelong learning as “the kind of purposeful and ongoing learning that has the aim of improving skills, knowledge, or competencies in three areas for: (1) use in the workplace, (2) engagement in civic and community activities, and (3) participation in activities for social and personal enrichment.” PIL then used the following three sets of research questions in its Phase 1 interviews:

  1. What lifelong learning needs do recent graduates have? What sources do they use for their personal development, cultural enrichment, and engagement in civic affairs in their day-to-day lives and for success in the workplace?
  2. How do today’s graduates use information support systems for lifelong learning, such as face-to-face exchanges with colleagues and friends, social media, search engines, MOOCs, extension courses, and community services?
  3. What best practices for finding and using information do recent graduates use to facilitate lifelong learning in their everyday lives and in the workplace? What information practices do they learn in college, then adapt and apply once they graduate?

Five key trends were identified from the Phase 1 Interviews:

  1. Lifelong Learning Needs
  2. Use of Sources
  3. Use of Social Media
  4. Best Practices
  5. Adaptable Information Practices from College

Here are a few excerpts from the Phase 1 report on trends:

“More than anything else, a large majority of recent graduates we interviewed identified lifelong learning needs that centered on employment and professional success…. Nearly all of the interviewees admitted they were challenged by ‘staying smart’ in a rapidly changing world.”

“Google search was the go-to source for lifelong learning, though some recent graduates mentioned turning to people first for recommendations…. They also valued what we are beginning to call the socialness of the information. In many cases, young graduates told us they were searching for people and a variety of opinions, rather than books and other static print resources.”

“We were surprised to learn many young graduates placed a high value on blogs for lifelong learning…. Taken together, graduates offered five reasons for using blogs for continuous learning: (1) quality content was ‘easy to harvest’ with a Google search; (2) content was a good value offering low-cost opinion and knowledge from insiders; (3) credibility of entries could be verified through consensus (three different people saying the same thing on three different blogs yielded ‘a small kernel of knowledge’ or ‘some technique that works’); (4) comments posted were an added value, since they could be used to figure out whether solutions/ideas worked over time and, ultimately, whether they were feasible; and (5) an open community existed on sites where participants could be sideliners, lurkers, or participants in the discussion.”

“Many of the recent graduates we interviewed had developed best practices for lifelong learning, especially in the workplace where their needs were often greater…. As a whole, many mentioned ‘reading anything,’ subscribing to professional journals and magazines, scanning their boss’s bookshelves for new titles, and reviewing college syllabi for possible reads.”

“Many of the recent graduates we interviewed credited college with ‘teaching them to learn how to learn,’ while giving them the confidence to ‘learn anything on their own.’ They referred to the critical thinking skills they had taken from college, especially the ability to sort through large volumes of content and synthesize key points, determine bias on websites and in news articles, evaluate the authority and credibility of sources, and to be flexible and revise search strategies as new information is presented. At the same time, some interviewees did not see how their major had taught them skills that matched their real-world needs.”

The full six pages of the Phase One preliminary report are available here, thanks to Alison.

Phase Two

In Phase 2 of the research, PIL administered a survey instrument to a large number of recent graduates of the colleges in the study to collect data on the following four questions about the information-seeking behavior of recent college graduates:

  1. What lifelong learning needs do recent graduates have for their personal development, engagement in local communities, and for staying employable and competitive in the workplace?
  2. How do today’s graduates use information sources and support systems for lifelong learning, such as social media, search engines, coworkers, bookstores, public libraries, and/or job training?
  3. What best practices for finding and using information do recent graduates use to facilitate lifelong learning in their personal lives, their local communities, and the workplace?
  4. What information practices and critical thinking skills—developed in college—do recent graduates adapt and apply later on in their lives, as lifelong learners?

For purposes of Phase 2 of the study, PIL defined lifelong learning as “purposeful, ongoing learning, by adults with the aim of improving skills or acquiring additional knowledge or competencies. This kind of learning occurs online as well as in brick-and-mortar settings. As such, it can occur in the workplace, in community and civic life, and in personal life. Lifelong learning may also take place through formal, informal, or non-formal exchanges.”

A total of 123,186 email invitations were sent to graduates from ten sample schools, with 1,651 respondents completing the survey. Seven key trends were identified by PIL from the survey. They include (with extracted comments):

  1. Diffuse learning needs: “More than anything else, a large majority of the graduates reported needing to learn additional skills and acquire knowledge for use in their personal lives.”
  2. Beyond Google: “Predictably most graduates turned to search engines for finding information sources they could put to use in their personal lives (94%) and, to a slightly lesser extent, in the workplace (89%). But, notably, search engines like Google or Bing were not the only lifelong learning sources reportedly used.”
  3. People as support systems: “Instead of jumping online to do a lightning-quick search on Google, we found graduates were more likely to turn to their supervisors (98%), co-workers (97%), or to a lesser extent, their friends (49%) for workplace learning.”
  4. Learning preferences: “A majority of graduates preferred to learn through job training opportunities in the workplace (68%) and in one-to-one help offered through face-to-face instruction (57%).”
  5. Use of books: “Notably, the young graduates surveyed placed a high value on books for lifelong learning in their personal lives (87%), and to a lesser extent in the workplace (64%).”
  6. Critical thinking and information skills used from college: “Many respondents reported using the critical thinking skills they had developed in college for finding and using information.”
  7. Overcoming previous research difficulties: “Our survey results are revealing about the information competencies students may develop and master during their college years. In PIL’s freshmen study (2013), the first-year students we interviewed ranked sorting through and filtering irrelevant results to find what they needed as one of their most difficult research tasks. However, the graduates surveyed appear to possess a fairly high degree of research acumen, based on their self-assessments. Half of the aggregate sample (50%) had reportedly developed and adapted skills for extracting the information they needed from their information searches. Still, lifelong learning was not necessarily easier for all of them: some graduates ‘strongly agreed’ that finding time (57%) and locating affordable sources (40%) for learning after college was most challenging.”

Here’s the link to the full ten-page Phase Two preliminary report, again thanks to Alison.

Phase Three

According to the Phase 2 preliminary report, “During Phase Three (March–April, 2015), the PIL team will conduct 60+ follow-up interviews with survey respondents who volunteered to be contacted for an interview. In these 10- to 15-minute telephone interviews we will ask about participants’ best practices as well as obstacles to lifelong learning. An open access findings report and survey dataset will be released in late fall 2015. These materials will be posted on the PIL site as well as deposited in the ResearchWorks repository at the UW.”

What I’ve provided here is the briefest of summaries from the preliminary reports for Phases 1 and 2 of the PIL research, because I feel so strongly that the research PIL is doing is so crucial to discovering what lifelong learning actually is and how best to enhance students’ ability to become lifelong learners. If you are at all interested in helping researchers become lifelong learners, please go to the reports themselves and read the qualitative and quantitative data PIL has collected: it is a treasure trove. And you may also find it interesting to take a look at this June 4, 2015, post on Monster.com (again, thanks to Alison): “For tech careers it’s not what [sic] about what you studied, it’s about what you learned,” which references the PIL work in describing how “[i]n the Information Age, well-honed information skills are a must across a variety of careers.”

I’m looking forward eagerly to seeing the results of the follow-up interviews in Phase 3 and heartily salute Alison Head and everyone else working on this important Project Information Literacy research. Thank you all for doing this!

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie J.M. Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.



  1. A million thanks to you, Cheryl, for this very thorough overview of PIL’s latest two-year study (funded by IMLS) on lifelong learning and helping us get the word out!

    As an update for readers, we are planning to release the final PIL research report in late October 2015. It will be open access, as are all our materials.

    I was so delighted to see this post, Cheryl. I am grateful to you for taking to time to synthesize our findings and supporting the research we conduct at PIL; means a whole heck of a lot.

    – Alison

    • Thank YOU, Alison, both for doing this vital work and for making the results readily available. I’ll look forward to seeing the final PIL research report later this year!

      Best wishes,

  2. Maureen Perry says:

    First of all I mentioned this post in my own blog


    Thank you so much!

    I was also intrigued by a comment in the Phase One report. Pg. 4 mentions graduates not relying on a single source (The “Use of Sources” section). Cross-checking sources is one of the habits we try to foster in students. Perhaps we could build upon the times students already do this.

    • Thanks for writing, Maureen! These PIL reports are providing us with treasure trove — I’m so glad they’re doing these and making them readily available to all.

      Best wishes,