Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (Foster & Gibbons, 2007)
The purpose of the Library Study at the University of Rochester was to examine the practices of undergraduate students during the process of writing course-assigned research papers. The study took place during the 2004-2005 academic school year. The research question was “what do students really do when they write their research papers?” Through the process of answering this question, the researchers believed that information gained from the study would enable library staff to better “help students meet faculty expectations for research papers and become adept researchers” (p. v).
In order to answer the research question, the study’s design involved the gathering of information from specific sources. To start the project, researchers needed to determine what the faculty’s expectations were in regard to the research paper assignment (this was to be achieved primarily through interviews). Additionally, interviews were also conducted with library staff and focused on the support areas of reference outreach, facilities, and web services. First, researchers needed to understand how and why students approached (or avoided) the reference desk for assistance. Second, an examination of facility use was done by identifying when, where, and why particular physical space was used by students. Finally, the researchers examined how students used the web to assist with their research papers.
Faculty Expectations of Student Research
The results of the faculty interviews indicated that there was a wide range of faculty expectations for student research papers. Almost all of the professors indicated that high school training was “far from sufficient in preparing students for research pursuits at the college level” (p. 4). Interestingly, the faculty interviews also indicated that graduate students knew how to research, but the faculty members were unable to identify how the students gained the skills. One of the faculty’s biggest concerns related to student failure to exercise good judgment in selecting high-quality resources for their research papers. A second concern was focused on student tendency to write summary-type papers without articulating critical thought. Finally, the faculty believed that poor student writing was a major concern. One of the major benefits of the librarians conducting the faculty interviews was the improvement in communication between faculty and library staff. This improvement in communication would allow for the bridging of the “gap of understanding by helping students figure out ‘what the professor wants’” (p. 5). This information also led to the training of eight librarians as writing consultants. Workshops were designed and implemented to help students “through the final steps of preparing a well-crafted research paper” (p. 6).
Asking Students about Their Research
To address the reference desk information, students who approached the reference desk for help on a research project were asked a series of survey questions about their research project. Additional student interviews (15) were conducted at two other locations on campus. One of the major outcomes of the student surveys and interviews was the knowledge that the librarians need to take a more active role in connecting students to appropriate and targeted databases for the research paper assignments. As a result of the findings, librarian office hours have been expanded to locations outside of the library. For example, librarians set up offices within departments for greater accessibility for faculty and students.
Night Owl Librarian: Shifting the Reference Clock
To respond to the perceived low numbers of students accessing the reference desks in the libraries, the researchers opted to expand the services offered via the reference desk by adding late-night hours (9-11 p.m. up to four additional nights per week during peak times – toward the end of the semester) and setting up a text messaging (or instant messaging service). It was believed that students would access these additional services because of the “nature” of students to work late into the evening while also accessing their electronic communication devices (cell phones). Both expansions of service failed to increase reference desk access by the students.
Library Design and Ethnography
Armed with a 5 million dollar renovation grant, the library was scheduled to go through a modernization product. The researchers got permission from the dean of the library to work directly with the architect for the changes to the library. The research team used a “charrette” workshop style technique to solicit feedback from students regarding their ideas about the redesign of a 23,000 square-foot section of the library. According to the researchers, the librarians’ ideas about what was needed for the students and what the students indicated (through design sessions) was needed did not match. Through the charrette process, two key learnings emerged for the researchs: First, gathering student input was not a “burdensome [or] time-consuming process” (p. 29); and second, researchers do not always know what is needed (in this case the librarians thought they knew what the students needed).
Dream Catcher: Capturing Student-Inspired Ideas for the Libraries’ Web site
For this focus of the research project, the researchers assembled two groups of undergraduate students to gather feedback about the design of a preferred library website. The first group was given the charge to make recommendation on the design of a new website by starting from scratch – develop a website without looking at the existing library website. The second group was given the charge to redesign the existing website by looking at it and making improvement suggestions. Four main ideas emerged from the workshop activities:
- Many of the existing library services were recommended for the website.
- Additional links to other university resources should be included on the library website.
- Students wanted the library website to be personalized for each user.
- The library website should be designed and used like a portal – a place to work from while easily accessing other resources.
Photo Surveys: Eliciting More Than You Knew to Ask For
To better understand how faculty conducted research, researchers visited their offices and interviewed faculty describing and pointing to resources in their respective offices. The interviews were also videotaped.
To better understand student behavior as it related to research, the team decided to use a photo survey approach and have student take photos of particular (pre-identified) items/activities. Once the photos were submitted by the student, interviews were conducted with the students to discuss the photos. This project was referred to as the photo-elicitation interview model. Some of the twenty items that the students were requested to photograph were:
- The computer they used in the library showing its surroundings
- All of the stuff that they took to class
- One picture of the library to show to a new freshman
- Their favorite place to study
- Something they’ve noticed that they think others don’t notice
- A picture of their room showing their computer
- A place in the library where they feel lost
The purpose of having the students take the photos was to create the opportunity for information to surface during the interview that might not otherwise surface if the interviews were prompted by questions only.
Mapping Diaries, or Where Do They Go All Day?
The research team designed and used a mapping activity for students to keep track of their movement around the campus for an entire day (with time indications) with a ten-minute interview at the end of the day. Two groups of students were studied and included on-campus residents and off-campus residents. The mapping diaries indicated a number of commonalities between the students’ movements:
- Students do more than just attend classes.
- Students are highly scheduled and on the go all the time.
- Students’ schedules are ‘offset’ from librarians’ schedules.
- Students eat on the go.
- Students carry their belonging with them, but not their laptops.
- Students use computer technology throughout the day and in multiple locations.
- Students study in the library, at home/in their dorms, and in the computer lab.
- There is no ‘average’ day for a student. (pp. 50-52).
As a result of the mapping activity, five themes emerged from the observations. First, most students study in the library and many of the students viewed the “library as the ‘center’ of their day” (p. 52). The activity revealed that students wanted a variety of study places to meet their various needs. Second, none of the students who participated in the mapping activity carried laptops throughout the day. Since most of the use of the laptop for research occurred in their dorm room and not in the library, it was discovered that the library needed to retain the public computers available to students working in the library. Third, since undergraduate students eat on the run, the fact the students could eat in the library might be a contributing factor as to why so many students used the library during the school day. Fourth, the student hours for academic research did not match the librarians’ hours for staffing the reference help desk. Often, students would not arrive at the library until after 9 p.m. Finally, students who did not live on campus needed addition technological support via more computer access points in the library.
What an Experience: Library Staff Participation in Ethnographic Research
The uniqueness of this study was the design and involvement of so many library staff members. Participants identified several person benefits to their participation. For example, the participants felt more optimism because of their active role. Others indicated that they were intellectually stimulated by the ethnographic methods employed for the study and felt that their relationships with faculty members had improved. Having a better understanding of student issues and perspectives related to research paper assignments proved to be valuable for all of the participants. Additionally, the participants felt that their interactions with students at the reference desk became more “two dimensional” rather than the librarian only “telling” the students where to find the information (p. 59). Understanding the expectations of the faculty regarding research assignment for students underlined the need for greater clarity with students. Finally, the instructional sessions where librarians offer workshops needed to change – more interaction with students was important as it was more engaging for the participants.
Then and Now: How Today’s Students Differ
One of the key findings for the research team was related to the generational changes that have occurred for undergraduate students and the need for the library staff to recognize and respond to the changes. Understanding the changes is best summed up with the report’s statement “When most of our library staff were in college, we had stereo systems, electric typewriters, dorm phones, office copiers, and sometimes televisions at school” (p. 63).
Conclusion: Creating Student-Centered Academic Libraries
The essence of The Library Study is that the libraries need to be more responsive to patrons – students and faculty- by making changing in design, service, and communication. The library needs to become a user-centered facility (serving the needs of the patrons). Organizational change in the types of services delivered by the library staff needs to occur to keep up with the changing demands of the patrons – this includes the improvement and modernization of updated and meaningful communication channels.
- The design of The Library Study was very interesting. How would you use this type of design at your school site? Is it feasible considering the human and time resources that would be required?
- One of the most intriguing parts of the study was the use of cameras. What is an example of camera use at your school site and what would be the benefit of using this approach?
- During the facilities discussion in the study, reference was made to the use of remodeling grant money to redesign a 23,000 square foot section of the library. Since it is not realistic that most of us will have access to this type of funding to leverage during a formal study, how might we focus on facilities issues without funding to change anything?
- It seemed that the information the researchers gained from the study was far from earth-shattering or surprising. Why are formal research studies even necessary for this type of project? Why does it take a study to flush out information and mobilize stakeholders?