A short note on assessment data

So I’ve been working lately on a presentation idea that I’ve been kicking around for a while, that I intend to submit for LOEX 2010, and as a result I’ve been looking through a bunch of messy assessment data that I’ve collected over the past year and a bit. And I was reminded of something in those data that puzzled me.

I tend to use the classic “Minute Paper” assessment tool (also known as the “Muddiest Point”), where the students are given a minute or two to write down on a scrap of paper one useful thing they learned from class that day, and one thing they still have questions about. Last semester, I got a little creative and decided to ask them to write down three things: one useful thing they learned, one thing they already knew, and one thing they still had questions about.

The responses for “one thing I already knew” were interesting. In a lot of cases, it was pretty much what you’d expect: “I’ve already had a class on searching for articles.” “I already knew how to find books in the catalog.” Famously, there was “I already knew pretty much everything because I’ve had this same library class four times now, but your presentation was definitely the best.” Uh, thanks? I think?

Anyway, what struck me about the “already knew” responses wasn’t what they said they already knew how to do, it was what they said they already knew to do: “I already knew to start my research with encyclopedias.” “I already knew not to cite Wikipedia in an academic paper.” “I already knew that it’s important to evaluate information on the web.”

And the only thing I can think is, “okay, you know to do these things, but do you?” Judging from the foot traffic in our print reference collection, I’d say no. (But wait, students could be starting their research with online encyclopedias, right? Actually, no, because we don’t subscribe to any. Oh, except for Wikipedia, of course, which it turns out they’re probably all using, possibly even appropriately.) And I think that their professors would say that, in some cases at least, they’re not evaluating their web sources sufficiently.

So what should I take away from this information? Do the students actually do the things they say that they know to do? I suppose you’d have to do some serious qualitative research, like the anthropological studies at the University of Rochester (PDF), to find out. How do you get past that barrier of the student thinking, “yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all this, but I don’t have time to do it”? Or is it some other barrier that prevents them from doing what they say they know they should do?

Incidentally, I don’t include that third question any more; it was taking too long for the students to do the assessment, and in a lot of ways it was too frustrating and demoralizing to see the huge range of what the students already knew (or didn’t).  Once we get a better information literacy curriculum plan in place with our new general education program, I may bring it back.