Monday, April 13, 2009

True "Confessions"

Reading this article today from Inside Higher Ed about the "confessions" undergraduates make to reference librarians, I was struck by how similar they are to what we hear at the reference desk of an academic law library. They are also similar to the issues that the students in my Advanced Legal Research find confusing. What parts of the research process do undergraduates and law students have questions about?

1.) Students start research projects without having enough background about the topic to be able to identify keywords and terms associated with it. This makes searching both print and online sources difficult.

2.) Students can't find a periodical article in the online catalog. We hear this all the time. Many students come to law school without ever having used a periodical index. I spend a lot of time in my class teaching students how to use indexes. This seems strange to me and other librarians of my generation who used Reader's Guide in middle and high school, and then "graduated" to more specialized indexes in college. Indexes are a foreign concept to many students today.

3.) Students don't know how to find journals that aren't available digitally. We find that if an article isn't on Lexis, Westlaw, or HeinOnline, students assume we don't have it and can't get it. This is despite our efforts to promote interlibrary loan, especially to journal students. It seems that resources don't exist unless they are digital.

4.) Students fail to find enough material on their topics, so they give up and switch to another topic. Use of appropriate keywords would facilitate finding relevant materials through the online catalog or index. See number 1 above.

5.) Students can't tell why one article is considered "scholarly," and they can't tell what makes a book a "monograph." This may be easier in the law, where it's easy to tell students that most articles published in academic law review, although not all, are "scholarly." Law students are mystified by the concept of the "treatise," however. The author of the article suggests that both faculty and librarians need to introduce students to the concept of "peer-reviewed, refereed, academic, or juried articles."

6.) Students have trouble finding materials about recent events. I find this observation not entirely credible as most students read news stories online. However, as the author points out, there is a time lag "between an insight or discoery and its formal communication to others in the field," and maybe this is the stumbling block.

7.) Students don't understand the difference between a primary and secondary source. This may be a problem for undergraduates, but I think most 1Ls get this distinction, at least for legal materials, pretty early on. In my experience, it's harder for our foreign LL.M. students to understand the distinction.

8.) Students worry that they may cheat if they take references from a bibliography, highlighting "how uncertain students can be about the boundary between plagiarism and scholarly practice."

I wonder how many colleges still have formal bibliographic literacy programs in place. It seems that they are badly needed since students are graduating from high school today without strong research skills. Once they get to law school, they don't have good skills to draw on, which makes it more challenging to work with them. Stuudents and librarians seem to lack a common vocabulary with which to approach research projects. Faculty members have to be part of the solution to this problem, perhaps by requiring students to attend bibliographic literacy programs at their colleges, perhaps by having librarians come into their classrooms and making presentations at the point of the semester when students are working on their papers. We have a few faculty members who do invite the librarians in, and the quality of the papers (and the research) in those classes tends to be higher than in those classes where there is no attention paid to research skills.

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