When 10 per cent of students in a 600-person class plagiarized on a term paper, Political Science professor Peter Ferguson was perplexed.
Ferguson began to do some investigating. He looked into whether students received instruction in how to properly conduct research, such as finding, using and citing sources. His discovery was that most of them never did.
He observed students lacked integral research skills to access the mountain of digital information to do scholarly research.
“People assume students know how to find information on the Internet faster and better than we do,” Ferguson said. “But students are skilled at finding music to download or television shows to download – that doesn’t mean that they know how to find research material for classes.”
Ferguson then enlisted the help of Western librarian Bruce Fyfe to help teach his class these crucial academic research skills.
University-age students today are sometimes referred to as ‘digital natives’ – a group of people who have grown up with the Internet. But many young people are unsure of how to use computers and the Internet beyond social media or web-browsing purposes. Librarians are now helping students fill this digital void.
The use of the term digital native can be controversial, said Western Sociology professor Anabel Quan-Haase, jointly appointed to the Faculty of Information and Media Studies as well as Social Sciences.
“Certainly digital natives are more aware of more technologies – how in depth they know each of these technologies is another question,” she said.
Quan-Haase said even if these digital natives are familiar with technology, they may not know how to use it effectively.
“We can use many tools – Twitter, Facebook, Google – but we don’t really know exactly what information we’re getting and what we may not be getting,” she said.
At Western, students have access to a wide range of subject-specific scholarly databases and millions of articles. For example, a Psychology student researching brain injuries in the PubMed database has thousands of articles available. Navigating these resources can be challenging.
Libraries are looking to teach students how to optimize research and many now offer workshops on how to make sense of the information they find, Quan-Haase said.
Trefor Armstrong, a first-year Engineering student at Guelph, said he was introduced to the services offered at his school library during a Frosh Week orientation session.
Armstrong said his orientation group was introduced to basic library services – like signing out a library book – but struggled to grasp the technology.
“We were like, this is going to be quick and easy,” he said. But when his orientation group didn’t have the collective ability to sign out a book as part of a scavenger hunt, they required the help of a librarian.
Armstrong still sees many students looking confused at the university’s book checkout kiosks, but he has taken the initiative to learn more about the library’s services, talking to librarians about digital services they offer. As a result, Armstrong is now much more comfortable in the library environment.
Jenna Schiralli, 21, is a fourth-year student at Western, who has moved on from library basics such as signing out books, but still goes to librarians for help with her digital research.
“I would have no idea what to do otherwise,” she said.
Schiralli said she is very knowledgeable about social media, but it’s difficult for her to use digital resources for academic purposes. She said librarians at Western have taught her how to search efficiently within academic databases, using simple tricks such as adding brackets and asterisks to narrow down her searches.
Jennifer Robinson, communications and outreach librarian for Western Libraries, said the university launched a new online chat service called ‘Ask a Librarian’ in September to help students like Schiralli. Here, students can go online and ask questions to a university librarian such as, “How do I find online scholarly articles?”
In the first week of offering the chat service, Robinson said the system received 50 questions. This is “pretty good” considering the beginning of school is generally a slow time for libraries, she said.
Robinson said it’s important to recognize not all students are tech-savvy and for libraries to have support services for students.
“Some students are embarrassed to ask for help,” she said. “They think they’re supposed to be technologically efficient.”
Kendra Yama, 21, a fourth-year political studies student at Queen’s University, writes two to three research papers per semester. However, she said her frustration with technology sometimes discourages her from doing more in-depth work.
“When I’m doing research for papers, I feel as though there’s a lot of information available, but I don’t necessarily have the skills to access it,” she said.
Yama said she is reluctant to go to librarians with questions because she thinks her problems would seem too trivial. However, she said she might be inclined to use a service like ‘Ask a Librarian,’ where she would conveniently be able to ask questions of a librarian online.
Marnie Harrington, FIMS librarian, has helped many students like Yama.
“Students will come to school – they’ll have their laptop and e-reader,” she said. “But they don’t know how to use these tools in an academic setting.”
Harrington said one way Western is helping students is through liaison librarians. These librarians spend time in research-intensive classes introducing students to the library resources available to them.
Back in Ferguson’s American government and politics class, he and librarian Fyfe began to dedicate the first 15 minutes of class to teaching students effective research skills.
Students were taught about plagiarism and how to avoid it, and how to properly access reference material by governments, interest groups and think tanks on databases like ProQuest.
“These are rich fields to plough but they were mostly being ignored because people don’t know about them,” Ferguson said.
At the end of the semester, Ferguson conducted a class survey. The research sessions had paid off – 85 per cent of students reported they were now more confident in their ability to conduct research.
“When you teach students things that they don’t know, they not only absorb that information but they feel better about what they’re doing,” he said.