Thoughts on what students don’t know

Todd Vandenbark

An article on Inside Higher Ed titled “What Students Don’t Know,” shares the results of “a two-year, five-campus ethnographic study examining how students view and use their campus libraries”. The results are sobering, and The Krafty Librarian points out critical information learned about students:

  • First, students don’t go to the library and they don’t use library resources.
  • Second, they overestimate their ability to do research and evaluate resources.
  • Third, if they searched something other than Google, they didn’t know how to search it (using a Google type search), and they often searched databases that would not be recommended for their topic.
  • Finally, they don’t go to the librarian for help with research, they go to their professor.

And about faculty:

  • First, faculty have low expectations for librarians. Libraries are seen as a purchasing agent.
  • Second, faculty assume students have a much higher level of research skills and knowledge than they in reality.

And in the view of most students, if libraries and librarians “register on the radar of students and professors, their perception of us is not good nor is it conducive to helping with research.”

From this author’s perspective, a large part of the responsibility for this situation falls on the shoulders of higher education as a whole. Long ago, when libraries moved books from librarian-access only to open stacks, disintermediation of access to information and learning began. But many areas in traditional higher education still follow an educational model that views learning as requiring the intermediation of a learned person (the professor/instructor) and a textbook or similar sets of materials. And though instructors assign research projects and the like, they assume what they are teaching in class will be a sufficient filter for sifting out relevant, scholarly resources for each assignment. But the deluge of information obtained in a single search is typically more than a pragmatic student can sift through quickly and effectively without some training or coaching. Kind of like trying to stop a tsunami with a bed sheet.

Female student using a laptop computerSecond, as the comments in the original Inside Higher Ed article hint at, more attention needs to be paid to primary and secondary education by college and university faculty and librarians. If all young students do is learn to take the first Google search result as valid and valuable, trying to change that behavior when a student is becoming an independent young adult is difficult at best, and at worst like trying to launch a 757 with a single rubber band.

School districts around the country are closing their libraries, or drastically curtailing services. And students are being herded into larger and larger class sizes, where learning is less personalized and less effective. Instead of just putting pressure on local school districts to “just do something” about such skills deficits, educators and librarians at the college and university level need to add their voices to those working for sufficient resources and support for education throughout a student’s academic experience.

Are you a college or university educator working to improve primary and secondary education? Tell us your story!