Dealing with Web Resources in Student Research Assignments
Everyone does it. It’s easy and ubiquitous. Need to find something?
The verb, “Google,” is even in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. The act of using Google to find information is not going away anytime soon. Everyone knows how to use it and, for many everyday purposes, it’s highly effective. Studies show that many college students also rely heavily on Google when doing their academic research (Head & Eisenberg, 2010, OCLC, 2006). It is generally believed that this reliance on “free web” resources, especially given the difficulty many students have critically evaluating information sources, can have a negative impact on the quality of student work.
Faculty and course designers deal with this in a variety of ways for research assignments – from an outright ban on the use of web resources in the bibliography, to requiring certain amounts of library or print sources in addition to web sources, to letting students make their own judgements, to collaborating with a librarian to provide or embed instruction on library navigation, search and information evaluation techniques. Any and all of these methods can be effective in the right circumstances and assignment context.
However you approach setting expectations of, and/or supporting, your students’ research skills, here are a couple of suggestions to consider, based on experiences from the library trenches. These suggestions may help you get better research out of your students, and help relieve some of the confusion students face when trying to interpret assignment instructions and do academic-level research:
- Explicit assignment instructions and references to existing library and academic support services can help. Many students start out lacking academic-level research skills. They come to college without the background and confidence to jump right into academic-level research without dedicated exploration time, support and/or learning opportunities (Foster, 2006).
- Clarify what you mean by “web sources” and “library sources.” The Online Library consists of electronic research tools and databases (some scholarly and some a mix of scholarly and popular) that are accessed via the web, so students are often confused whether journal articles and e-books found through the Online Library are acceptable or not. Make your expectations for this clear in the assignment instructions.
- If you ask students to use the Online Library, give them a place to start. Some students are not even aware they have a large online library available at their finger tips, much less how to get to it or what it offers them. The librarians are happy to work with you to come up with some text, links or even embedded database search boxes or tutorials (so they may not even have to leave ANGEL to search a relevant database) that might help.
- There is a tremendous amount of valuable information out on the “free web.” Our federal and state governments, NGOs, think tanks and other educational institutions offer a wide variety and large volume of information and statistics that often can’t be found elsewhere. It’s not always easy to find or differentiate these sources from those that are less reliable, but they are out there. Take this into consideration as you set your expectations for students. Note also that most of the library’s Subject Guides include tabs for “Web Sources & Statistics” that provide links directly to this kind of relevant material.
- Consult with a librarian on possible ways to help students critically evaluate all their sources (whether they are from the “free web” or not). Here is one handout that might be useful to give to your students: Evaluating Your Sources: Use a Rat TRAP!
If you have any questions about how library resources and services, or information literacy skills, might be integrated into your teaching or course design, contact Dana Longley, Assistant Director for Library Instruction and Information Literacy.
Foster, A. (2006). Students fall short on ‘information literacy,’ Educational Testing Service’s study finds. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53 (10), A36. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database: http://bit.ly/cnxwEx
Head, A.J. & Eisenberg, M.B. (2010). How college students evaluate and use information in the digital age (Informally published manuscript). The Information School, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Retrieved from http://projectinfolit.org/pdfs/PIL_Fall2010_Survey_FullReport1.pdf
OCLC. (2006). College students’ perceptions of the libraries and information resources: a report to the OCLC membership. Retrieved from http://www.oclc.org/reports/perceptionscollege.htm