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Learning from Students in the Digital Age

The first S.T. Lee–Harvard Library Innovation Lecture delved into Project Information Literacy, a long-term survey studying thousands of college students across the country on their library experiences.  

 
Alison Head presents in the Lamont Forum Room

How do college students solve information problems in their everyday lives? On September 7, 2017, the Lamont Forum room was filled with educators, librarians, and administrators from Harvard and beyond for the inaugural S.T. Lee–Harvard Library Innovation Lecture interested in this question and more. Speaker Alison J. Head dove into her research as part of Project Information Literacy (PIL), a long-range survey of 13,120 students across 60 US colleges, universities, and community colleges that aims to figure out how they gather and understand information.

An information scientist and social science researcher, Alison is the principal investigator and executive director of the project. The question of what it’s like to be a student in the digital age fascinated her and she began a small pilot study in the Bay Area, interviewing students on how they tackle college-level research problems in a time when they’re bombarded with more information than ever before. Then she connected with Sue Gilroy, librarian for undergraduate programs for writing at Harvard Library, to put together a focus group of Harvard undergraduates who joined the survey.  

The project’s purpose was to collect survey and interview data so that the “students could teach all of us,” Alison explained, “to let them open up and tell their stories so that we could view the research process through the lens of their experience.” A major goal was to publish open-access reports to get this data into as many hands as possible.

As the study grew nationally, Alison began to see the same problems encountered by all of the student participants, regardless of where they went to school.  She found that what many students lacked was context. Given an assignment such as, “write a paper about a woman,” students would walk into the library and feel intimidated, unsure of how to ask for help. As her team conducted interviews, they found that undergraduates were shaped by prior assumptions about doing library research and felt overwhelmed by the resources available to them in college. Many students didn’t know how to search a library portal or how to use keywords effectively. Insecurities about being in school and anxiety about meeting the expectations of professors were just a few more roadblocks in their way.

As she shared results from her research, Alison made recommendations for improving outreach to students, such as building bridges of effective research strategies from high school to college so that they can acquire skills that they can take with them as they grow, using peer educators to reach students where they feel comfortable, and intensively working with students one-on-one to give them the confidence they need to solve problems on their own.

About the S.T. Lee–Harvard Library Innovation Lecture

This lecture series is made possible by a generous donation from Dr. Seng T. Lee, a philanthropist who has long been a supporter of libraries and education. Dr. Lee’s generosity is also funding the S.T. Lee Innovation Grants at Harvard Library, with the goal of improving access to information and the experience of using library resources at Harvard. In the past, Dr. Lee has funded libraries in Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Dr. Lee’s interest in improving the experience of using library resources aligns with the Harvard Library’s expanding emphasis on innovation and user-focused services.

By Kaitlin Buckley, Harvard Library Communications.

Published on September 20, 2017. 

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