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Just Google It: How Search Engines Stunt College Students' Research Skills

A new study finds that students have a hard time doing academic research using either the internet or scholarly databases.

The current generation of college students has grown up with the internet and plenty of technology, but surprisingly, that doesn't mean they know how find the information they need for research papers. A two-year study by the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries Project concludes that students are so used to conducting simple searches on Google that they have a hard time doing more sophisticated research either online or in the library.

The researchers, who interviewed students, librarians, and other academic staff at five universities, found that modern students often are unable to figure out which academic journals and databases they need to access to write a paper or complete a project. If they do know which database to use, they get stuck whenever finding the information requires them to do more than type in a few keywords and click enter.

This inability to do serious research also has implications beyond campus. "Many (but not all) students are not gaining the information literacy skills in college that they will need in their future careers," Andrew D. Asher, one of the authors of the study, told the Australian news website The Conversation. "This isn’t just about doing academic research, but also about being a savvy, reflective, and critical consumers of information."

Also troubling to the researchers was their finding that students don't typically ask librarians for help, even when they know the resource is available. Asher says librarians are "absent from most students' academic worldview." They don't realize that 30 minutes with the librarian could open up a whole range of scholarly research material and databases that aren't available through a quick Google search.

Asher suggests that students receive "better conceptual training on how search engines organize and retrieve information." For instance, along with mandatory workshops on the campus alcohol policy, freshmen should attend a session on how to conduct scholarly research. Drexel University's new Library Learning Terrace, a dorm-based space that will be staffed by librarians, could offer a useful model. And since so many databases and academic journals are specific to certain fields of study, individual academic departments should educate newly-declared majors on how to properly access scholarly resources.

photo via (cc) Flickr user Wonderlane

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