What do faculty know about what students know?

There’s a lot of discussion going on about what students, especially first-year students, know about library research and information literacy. This makes sense: we need to know what students know, and what they don’t know, so that we can avoid boring them with stuff they’re already familiar with, and so that we can fill in gaps in what they do know.

But I had an experience earlier this semester that reminded me that it’s also important for us (that is, librarians) to understand what faculty know about what students know.

I was teaching a typical “one-shot” instruction session to a smallish (about 20) class of first-year students. It was a typical nightmare one-shot: “I need you to give them an introduction to the library’s services, show them how to find books and articles, and also reliable web sources. In 30 minutes.” That kind of class.

I negotiated the professor down to the barest introduction to searching for books and articles, with an emphasis on “here’s where and how to start your search, and here’s my contact information and the reference desk hours for when (not if) you need help.” I think I showed them how to get to the catalog and do the simplest of keyword searches, and how to get to Academic Search Premier and do a similar, very basic, keyword search. I didn’t even get into Boolean operators; I didn’t show them subject headings in the catalog; I didn’t even show them how to limit their search to peer-reviewed journal articles. Just the very basic-est basics.

At the end of the session, as the professor and I were answering questions (and they did, at least, ask some good questions that pointed to things that I ought to have covered, had I been given the time), the professor gave the following bits of advice to the students (most of these are paraphrased, but they’re pretty close to the real language the professor used):

  • For this project, make sure you’re using “reputable,” peer-reviewed, “quality” journals, not “Readers’ Guide-type stuff.” (“Readers’ Guide-type stuff” is an actual quote.)
  • Some topics are better addressed by books, and others are better addressed by articles. Articles can be hyper-specialized and difficult for first-year students to understand, and books deal with topics at just a little more general level.
  • For journal articles, if our library doesn’t have them, go see if Big Research Library across the street has them.

Did you catch all that? Now, these were, as a whole, slightly more-advanced first year students than our student body as a whole, but they were still first-year students. Eighteen-year olds. So let’s unpack each of those statements just a bit.

Reputable, quality, peer-reviewed articles. Okay, we all know that first-year students don’t know what the peer-review process is, much less how to distinguish a peer-reviewed article from a general-interest article. I could easily spend an entire class session teaching the students how to tell the difference between the two. I might have done that at least once in my career; it’s hard to remember. You probably have done it way more than once. But “reputable, quality” peer-reviewed articles? I’m not even sure what the professor meant by that: articles in the “flagship” journals of their respective fields? Articles in journals known for particularly rigorous standards of peer-review (unlike certain library science journals of late)? Or are “reputable” and “quality” just synonyms for “peer-reviewed”? Even I’m not certain. What I am certain about, though, is that first-year students haven’t the slightest idea how to determine any of that stuff, especially in their first course in a discipline with which they have no prior experience. I won’t even get into the “Readers’ Guide” comment except to mention that I actually taught a class to use the Readers’ Guide this term, with hands-on exercises and everything, and they all left class thinking that I had come down to Earth from the Mothership.

Books versus articles. This is an issue I wrestle with at the reference desk fairly often: when to steer students toward books, and when to steer them towards articles. For example, if a student asks for “articles about the Ku Klux Klan,” I’m more likely to redirect them to books (if possible, and often it isn’t possible because their assignment specifies articles, not books), just because the article literature is going to give them a tiny slice of the history and sociology of the KKK: the role of economic conditions in poor whites’ decisions to join the KKK in Alabama in the 1920s, or some such thing. A book is more likely to cover the rising and falling fortunes of the group in a broader perspective. Likewise, I’m probably going to direct a student asking for sources about the effect of X condition on Y situation to journal articles rather than books. But the “book vs. article” decision depends on a broad knowledge of many possible topics, the shapes of scholarship in different fields, a lot of experience searching for both books and articles and scanning abstracts and tables of contents: in short, precisely the kind of experience that librarians have in abundance and eighteen-year-olds . . . don’t.

Go get journal articles at Big Research Library. This one is actually my favorite, because on the surface it seems so simple and obvious. You have a known citation to a journal article, that’s not held at our (small, collegiate) library. Big Research Library across the street has extensive holdings in this subject area, so they probably have most, if not all, the articles these students would need. Just go there to find the article and copy it, right? Well, not so fast. It’s a constant surprise to adults of my generation (that is, the pre-online-index generation: I did research in print indices not only in high school, but also in college and in grad school [barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways. . . ]) how perplexing undergraduates find this process. First you have to get them into Big Research Library’s catalog in the first place. Then you must convince them to search the catalog by the title of the journal, not the title of the article. (I’ve seriously spent five or more precious minutes of class time on this topic, explaining in four or five different ways why and how this works, resulting in nothing but further confusion. Falling back on “but if you could search the catalog for article titles, you wouldn’t need databases!” doesn’t seem to help, oddly enough.) Then you have to explain the catalog’s Byzantine holdings information screens, the fact that Big Research Library assigns its journals call numbers while ours are shelved alphabetically, and how to navigate the dozen-plus floors of said library. If you’re very lucky, you’ll stumble upon a title that Big Research Library only has access to online (but which shows up in the catalog anyway), and then you have to explain why you need to be physically on Big Research Library’s campus to access that online journal (there’s a whole additional instruction session right there on the economics of information and licensing terms), and then you have to explain which small subset of computers at Big Research Library our students are allowed to use, and under what circumstances. And the fact that those computers won’t print, so you’d better bring a flash drive with you.

Whew. Is it any wonder eighteen-year-olds find this daunting? And yet the professor for this course tossed off this bit of advice without a second thought.

So as important as it is for us librarians to be constantly improving our knowledge of what students do and don’t know, there can still be a huge gap between our understanding, and faculty members’ understanding. And I guess it’s our responsibility to find ways, diplomatically of course, to convey to the faculty that their students don’t, in fact, know as much as they think they do.