Researching Incoming Graduate Students’ Information Behavior

Researching Incoming Graduate Students’ Information Behavior

Within the first few months of graduate study, the quality of my research greatly improved. My information behavior methods have become more sophisticated, and I now use previously unknown academically rich resources. Before starting the semester, citation mapping and chaining were not part of my research arsenal, and I never used advanced academic catalogs, such as the Web of Science. Certain factors contributed to my ignorance, including extended pauses in my academic career, being an older adult student, and unfamiliarity with university resources. The most astounding discovery from this information literacy growth has been the ironic realization that when entering the graduate program, I believed myself competent in information literacy, only to discover how much I was missing. This experience created an interest to learn about the information behavior of other incoming graduate students, and who or what forms their information behavior.

 Literature Review

Research abilities and information literacy skills

There have been several studies exploring the abilities of incoming graduate students, and these studies have evaluated whether incoming graduate students were prepared to accomplish the rigorous research required for their programs. Incoming graduate students have unique information needs due to the gap in expectations between perceived and actual research expertise. Monroe-Gulick and Petr (2012) considered that gap large enough to suggest the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) re-evaluate their graduate student standards, and use the current graduate student standards for undergraduate instruction. They suggested graduate student instruction should focus on the research process instead of general information literacy.

Chen and Lin concluded in 2011 that graduate students confuse familiarity with the internet for information literacy. Through their study at Carnegie Mellon University, George et al. (2006) found resource searching through internet search engines such as Google and Wikipedia were the most popular methods used by graduate students. Allen and Weber (2012) analyzed reference lists and found the journals being used by incoming graduate students were not the best sources for research studies, with students lacking the skill to distinguish the difference between evidence-based resources from opinion and general information resources.

The transition between undergraduate student and graduate student is abrupt, no matter if there is a lapse between enrollment, and a lack of information literacy skills during this process can hinder the transition. Students returning to school for graduate course work encounter challenges in academic difficulty and technological advancements (Allen and Weber, 2012). Chu and Law (2008) determined that the skill of graduate students does not meet the levels that are required for graduate research, and information search training is still needed at the graduate level to help students become competent at information searching.

Conway (2011) found the issue of students completing undergraduate study without the skills they need for graduate study troubling. Her study to determine the different in literacy skills between graduate and undergraduate students indicated the difference is “hardly overwhelming” (Conway, 2011, pg. 132). Undergraduate students typically have research topics assigned and research methods do not need to be extensive to fulfill course requirements. In contrast, graduate students are expected to determine their own research topics and to locate the appropriate research materials to study and substantiate ideas. This methodology is supported by Khosrowjerdi (2011), who found prior knowledge of subjects reduced barriers to information seeking during his study of graduate students at Tehran University. Students learning about a topic in class and then researching that topic have different research needs than graduate students selecting a topic for research, particularly for thesis papers. The research required for graduate study is more intense and self-directed, requiring higher levels of information literacy than undergraduate course work.

Guidance sources for research resources

Studies have investigated the people and sources graduate students utilize the most. Graduate students often rely on faculty to determine accepted standards of research resources within their specific academic program (George et al, 2006). Students utilize the resources suggested by faculty, limiting where research resources originate. Faculty mentoring and guidance during the research process influences students to use specific databases and particular information sources (Chen and Lin, 2010). Chen and Lin (2010) suggest faculty is the most influential in encouraging information literacy methods to incoming graduate students. It is during the initial stages of a research project that a graduate student depends the most on faculty and faculty advisors for research guidance (Barrett, 2005).

Interestingly, Barrett describes the lack of librarian guidance used by graduate students. He reported students agree on the value of librarians on locating materials, but otherwise they do not typically use librarians as a guidance source. In a longitudinal study, Rempel (2010) found graduate students did not think librarians could help them because they were not familiar and trained in their specific field. Graduate students typically do not consider using librarian assistance, and creating a relationship between librarians and students equivalent to that held by faculty has proven challenging (Monroe-Gulick & Petr, 2012). Increased contact between students and librarians will benefit the students’ information literacy skills (Barton et al., 2002).

Rasul and Singh (2010) determined that graduate students want libraries to provide more classes on information literacy, but they failed to mention how the library literacy classes were already being utilized to determine if this was a valid desire on the part of the students. In other studies, students have been surprised to discover information literacy and research classes were available (Sadler and Given, 2007).

Studies in improving information literacy skills

There have been several studies to determine what can be done to improve incoming graduate student’s information literacy skills. Rempel (2010) conducted a longitudinal study where graduate students were oriented by library reference staff on research methods and information literacy skills. These students showed increased research skills, and had greater ease in locating appropriate materials for use in their research. They also reported utilizing new databases and better understanding research resources. Although these students reported positive results, the instance of reference library and orientation use is still infrequent, with most graduate students declining reference librarians’ assistance for their research. Researchers Liu and Winn (2009) speculated that libraries are not promoting the various services offered, causing the students to be unaware the resources are available. This idea was supported by Sadler and Given (2007) when they discussed the affordance theory and how academic librarians should focus on promoting the library by creating a dialogue with students and faculty. Barton et al. (2002) suggested further research should be conducted to determine why students request additional classes and services, but do not take advantage of the classes and resources already available to them. Liu and Winn (2009) presented a study on the use of library services by Chinese graduate students at the University of Windsor. They reported that among the students who reported to have attended library literacy classes, everyone thought the time spent in the class was worth it, and stated the classes were helpful (Liu & Winn, 2009).

Psychological Barriers

Several researchers have studied the possible psychological barriers to incoming graduate becoming proficient in information literacy skills. Onwuegbuzie and Jiao (2004) explored the way anxiety can influence graduate students. Students that experience library anxiety have a difficult time understanding library resources, and have high instances of procrastination (Onwuegbuzie and Jiao, 2004). Anxiety affects research performance by inhibiting students’ ability to concentrate on research material and determining if the materials meet their research needs. Onwuegbuzie and Jiao (2004) suggested anxiety could prevent students from developing satisfactory library research skills due to misunderstanding signs or instructions, or refrain from seeking help.

Another barrier to incoming graduate student acquiring sufficient research skills is the issue of competency. Gross (2005) discusses the overconfidence incoming graduate students experience when entering their master level program. These students are unaware that they do not have the information literacy and research skills needed to successfully complete their programs. Some students are unable to adequately evaluate their work in comparison to other students, causing them to not consider their research inferior (Gross, 2005). This could be an explanation as to why new graduate students are not flooding libraries seeking to learn how to improve their research skills.

Research Questions after Literature Review

How would library orientation increase graduate student literary skills?

1.)  How would library orientation affect graduate student literary and research skills?

2.)  If library orientation is found effective, how would universities offer library orientation?

3.)  How should graduate student library orientation differ from undergraduate library orientations?

4.)  How would the issue of distance learning be addressed in library orientations and information literacy skill instruction?

Overcoming barriers to graduate students seeking reference librarian assistance

1.)  What causes students to have library anxiety?

2.)  How can students overcome anxiety in seeking librarian assistance? What tools do they need for this? (Anxiety-Expectation Mediation)

3.)  Is there a connection between information literacy skills and library anxiety? Do individuals who experience library anxiety have high or low literary and research skills?

4.)  How can incoming graduate students be educated about literary and research skills when they are ignorant of their ignorance? (Competency Theory)

Research Study Purpose

The purpose of this research study would be to answer the question of how incoming graduate students can be educated about library literacy and research skills when they are unaware of their lack of knowledge. These students are experiencing an academic transition requiring more effective and intense research abilities than were required as undergraduate students. Incoming graduate students often experience academic gaps between undergraduate and graduate study causing them to be unfamiliar with current research technology and methods. Students attending universities different than they attended as undergraduate students are unfamiliar with library resources due to being new to the university. This study will evaluate how effectively incoming graduate students evaluate their own library literacy in relation to research, explore their current knowledge of research resources, and their prior use of research assistance.

Study Questions

  • How would you rate your research abilities? (Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent)
  • What print resources do you use for research?
  • What online resources do you use for research?
  • What databases do you use for research?
  • Did you attend this university for an undergraduate degree?
  • Have you been to library orientation for graduate students?
  • Would you participate in a library orientation program for graduate students?

Why or why not?

  • How often have you discussed research goals with reference librarians as an undergraduate student?
  • Do you feel you could instruct others how to research effectively?

Study Methodologies

The research method would utilize currently established university orientation programs to survey incoming graduate students. Universities require students attend orientation prior to starting classes, and often have campus and online sessions. The survey would be distributed during these orientation sessions, and then collected or submitted during the session. An optional longitudinal section could be added to follow up on the initial survey results, with students who attend a library orientation taking the survey again after the library orientation.

Data Analysis

Survey questions would have either yes/no or short answer results. Charts and graphs would be compiled by response to look for commonality and trends. A comparison would be done between the initial self-assessment of research expertise in the first question and the final self-assessment of the ability to instruct others on research in the last question to determine validity of the expressed research expertise. A strong self-rating in the initial self-assessment that is not supported by the ability to teach research skills to another person might indicate a true lack of confidence in research ability. The data compiled from the responses for research resources and databases would support or refute the expressed proficiency. A lack of knowledge of research resources and databases do not exhibit a lack of proficiency, but advanced knowledge of research resources would indicate a higher level of expertise. Survey questions relating to familiarity to the university can be used to determine if students new to the campus are more or less willing to attend library orientation. Results will need to be evaluated to determine if students who have attended the university as undergraduate students respond differently than students new to the university.

If the longitudinal section is supplemented into the study, a comparison between the initial survey responses and the supplemental responses would be done. This would examine whether library orientation had significantly improved library literacy and research capabilities.

Benefits of Applied Research

A new graduate student walks into a library and goes to a database they were introduced to during graduate level library orientation. They enter into the database their research subject and find 100 resources, with at least half of the resources completely meeting the student’s needs at a cursory glance. The student enters in Boolean operators, and the results are refined to 30, with all of those resources seeming to meet the graduate student’s needs. The student is able to locate, obtain, or request all of those resources, and they go on their way.

Another new graduate student walks into the same library and goes to the same database. They enter into the database their research subject and do not find any resources. They remember from library orientation that the fewer words used in a search, the more likely they are to find resources. The student enters a generalized subject into the database, and still does not find any resources. They consider giving up the subject, as there does not seem to be any resources for that subject, but then they remember there are research librarians willing to help. The graduate student discusses their subject with a librarian, and together they find the needed resources.

A third new graduate student enters the same library. They enter into the database their research subject and do not find any resources. They try being more descriptive of the subject in hopes of finding resources, but still do not find any. They try several more subject searches in the database, all with no resources being found. After hours of fruitless searching, the student decides to give up and leaves the library without having found any valid resources for their effort.

Not finding research resources is typical. The first and second scenarios are the exception, not the norm (Yu and Young, 2004). Most incoming graduate students do not participate in library orientations, and are ill prepared for the intense research requirements found in graduate school.

Improving Information Services

The results of my research could form the policy for colleges and universities on programs for graduate level library orientation. These policies would require graduate level library orientation as part of the entrance orientation, or as part of the curriculum. Graduate programs could include library orientation as part of their programs for incoming students, similar in format to the workshops utilized by Rempel (2010). Faculty members would encourage students to utilize help from research librarians and participate in library workshops to improve research skills. Libraries could advertise research assistance through school email and websites, specifically targeting graduate students. The result would be improved research abilities for graduate students, enabling them to bridge the academic gap between undergraduate and graduate study. Understanding how to research properly can influence a graduate student’s entire academic career, and having the proper skills reduces stress from trying to meet the new expectations placed on them as they enter this new phase of academic life.


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